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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Revenger's Tragedy
Olivier Theatre Summer 2008

Thomas Middleton's 1606 drama has a plot that defies summary. Suffice to say that the protagonist, after nourishing a legitimate grudge for nine years, decides to take action. But just about everybody else onstage is planning the murder of one or more of the others, and he keeps getting caught up in their plots and counterplots.

This all involves, among other things, the attempted seduction of his own sister, an execution order that gets the wrong victim, the kissing of a poisoned skull, the dressing up of one corpse to resemble another, the order to kill someone who is actually himself in disguise, and a climactic sequence in which a seemingly endless string of characters take turns killing someone only to be immediately killed by someone else.

As they used to say on an American parody soap opera, 'Confused? You will be.'

Although a programme note by the editor of the new Collected Works of Middleton (who might be excused for not being objective) tries to argue that the play ranks with Hamlet, it doesn't. There's just too much going on, too many subsidiary characters drawing our attention away from the one we're supposed to feel for, too much excess for us to feel for anyone.

Still, as other revivals have proven, it is barely possible to keep all this clear and to generate a sense of the hothouse of murderous intents and casual depravity that is Middleton's real subject.

But Melly Still's production for the National Theatre is unable to conjure up any reality or nightmare quality. Despite repeated glimpses around the edges of this modern-dress production of vaguely debauched aristocrats at play, we get no real sense of a world surrounding or infecting the central characters.

Indeed, the towering sets by Ti Green and Melly Still so dwarf the actors on the vast Olivier stage that it is difficult to relate to the characters as human-sized at all.

Rory Kinnear charges the main character with a lot of entertaining and attractive languid irony, but that somewhat defeats the purpose of picturing a man completely swallowed up by his obsession. It is Elliot Cowan as the chief baddie who generates the most onstage energy, and whose appearances we most welcome, which surely is not what the playwright would have intended.

This is the sort of play that has characters named Vindice, Lussurioso, Ambitioso and Sordido. It doesn't operate in subtleties, another reason why the comparison to Hamlet is unconvincing.

But it could conjure up a sense of horror and disgust at an irredeemably corrupt society - another comparison the programme makes, to John Osborne, is more telling - though it would take a more focussed and atmospheric production than this to do so.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Revenger's Tragedy - National Theatre 2008