For the first five minutes of Melly Still’s staging of The Revenger’s Tragedy not a word is spoken, instead the set spins and music pounds and the audience are pulled into dark, forbidding world, a world replete with a sense of menace, decadent and dangerous.
After this throbbing, attention-grabbing opening sequence the play proper begins. A bedraggled Vindice is still in mourning for his beloved Gloriana, who was killed, poisoned, by the Duke for refusing his sexual advances. Vindice has shut himself away for nine years, brooding in his room, letting his hair grow lank and long, occasionally taking her skull out from the box in which he keeps it to ponder his loss. Finally, prompted into action by the death of his father, he vows revenge on those who took her from him.
To achieve his goal he resorts to disguise which in this case means shearing his hair and donning tight silver jeans and a white jacket so he can infiltrate the Duke’s court. The world he enters is one of corruption and debauchery: we first encounter Lussurioso, the Duke’s legitimate heir, as he is enthusiastically pleasuring himself in a corridor. Lussurioso has taken a fancy to Vindice’s virginal and dignified sister, and recruits him to procure her for his malign uses.
The programme quotes Confucius: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves”, but this is Jacobean tragedy, so two graves wouldn’t even start to cover it, not given the amount of bodies that inevitably pile up by the end of the play. The death of the Duke, forced into a fatal embrace with a poisoned skull, is a particularly strong scene, bloody and brutal. The final masque scene, though visually striking in the way it was performed by a troupe of black-clad acrobatic dancers, Still drawing on her background as a choreographer was disappointing in comparison, too clean, too quick.
As Vindice, Rory Kinnear has the single-minded glint in his eye of a man set on revenge; he is also adept at striking the right balance between this clear-eyed desire for vengeance and the sardonic humour the play calls for. Katherine Manners, in the small but pivotal role of Castiza, Vindices sister, brings an openness to the part, an appealing straight-forwardness. Elliot Cowan is also excellent as the long-limbed playboy Duke-in-waiting, strutting and cocky, but not completely oblivious to the consequences of his action.
Still’s production, which blends modern dress with a historical sensibility the men still carry swords successfully cuts through the plays rather knotty plot. It creates a world where death by poisoned skull is an, if not plausible, than at least an appropriate way to go. She even injects this scene, where Vindice waltzes with his long dead love, now a hideous mannequin and instrument of death, with a degree of poignancy.
The set, designed by Still along with Ti Green, peppered with frescoes and computer generated skulls, is part Italian court, part urban night spot and is full of dark corners where illicit deeds can take place. The exhilarating music, blending operatic voices with beats provided by DJ duo differentGear, add to the productions sense of momentum. This is a production of spectacle and excess: unsubtle, aggressive, but fittingly so. The final few minutes, that last spin of the set, the vacant throne, the damage done, have a particular power.
The Revengers Tragedy, part of the Travelex 10 season, is playing at the National until 7 August 2008