The Revenger’s Tragedy – Barbican, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Thomas Middleton (probably)

Director: Declan Donnellan

It’s time for Part Two of the unofficial Thomas Middleton revival week, with the Globe offering a solid but uninspiring production of Women Beware Women and the Barbican welcome reputed theatre company Cheek by Jowl who bring their Italian language version of The Revenger’s Tragedy to the UK as part of a brief European tour. While both productions approach the themes of murder, seduction and power quite differently, it is the latter that embraces Middleton’s drama on its own terms.

At the Italian court Vindice vows to avenge the death of his fiancée several years before blaming the Duke for poisoning her and setting out to destroy his family. The Duke’s eldest son Lussurioso wants to sleep with Castiza – Vindice’s virginal sister – and unknowingly employs a disguised Vindice to test the morality of his own sister and mother. Meanwhile the Duke’s younger second wife begins an affair with his bastard son Spurio, giving Lussurioso’s stepbrothers the opportunity they crave to position themselves as heirs.

Declan Donnellan’s production has been translated into Italian by Stefano Massini, the writer of The Lehman Trilogy and it’s clear they know something about the intricacies of family politics and long-held rivalries in complex blended units. With Middleton’s text broadcast as English subtitles, there is clarity in the heavily convoluted plots within plots giving distinction to all of the key characters and plainly establishing their motivation. And while the Globe tied itself in notes trying to resolve Middleton’s sexual politics and the problems of the Jacobean male gaze, here Donnellan’s emphasis is on the self-serving powerplay between the layers of stepchildren, illegitimate offspring and heirs apparent.

The tone is relatively jaunty throughout, and Donnellan casts the piece in a heightened state, almost like a Punch and Judy show, or as though the audience is witnessing the Players in Hamlet performing the Murder of Gonzago, slightly unreal on the boundary between funny and unpleasant. The violence when it comes is variable, one key character meets a particularly nasty end with a graphic torture scene while Middleton’s grand finale is a sprightly murder buffet, a whistle-stop tour of just desserts that is one of the show’s liveliest moments.

What it lacks is menace and often drama, for a show with no interval the pace is remarkably leisurely, the numerous subplots develop slowly but Donnellan never builds a sense of inevitable destruction or really taps into the core question at the heart of all revenge tragedy – does seeking revenge ultimately cause the destruction of the revenger? There are moments of intensity here, but the overall effect is silly rather than thoughtful, with no suggestion that characters deserve or are wrongly served by the sticky ends they meet.

Fausto Cabra’s Vindice is played as a bit of wheeler dealer, differentiating himself from the slick pomposity of court both in more casual dress and a broadly humorous manner that enjoys raising an eyebrow or gleefully casting a glance to the audience as his plan comes together. The scene in which a disguised Vindice tests his mother’s virtue and then later confronts her are the best, and while its clear Vindice is easily the cleverest person in the room, Cabra has a lot of malevolent skipping to do without ever questioning his own motive or purpose.

Ivan Alovisio’s Laussurioso isn’t quite as dastardly as he is described although he enjoyably outwits his stepbrothers and earns a late soliloquy of his own. Massimiliano Speziani has a couple of excellent scenes as the Duke along with Pia Lanciotti as the sultry and lusty Duchess bored with her confined lifestyle, while the wider cast do well to create the feel of a busy court with plenty of shadowy secrets.

Nick Ormerod’s design of blood red wooden wall opens to reveal a variety of different locations, each decorated with a renaissance courtly painting or landscape scene that move the production along, but there are long passages that sag even with the substantial trims to Middleton’s five Act text. Advertised at 1 hour and 50 minutes but actually around 20-minutes longer, it is a long stint for an audience without a break, and while there is a lot of inventive and interesting content, this production of The Revenger’s Tragedy needs a little more drive.

Runs until 7 March 2020

The Reviews Hub Score

Relatively jaunty

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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