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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Revenger's Tragedy

Were there as many concubines as ladies
He would not be contain'd
— Vindice about the Duke
The Revenger's Tragedy
Rory Kinnear as Vindice
(Photo: Johann Persson)
.The Revenger's Tragedy gets the occasional revival at the Olivier, the National Theatre's largest space, just as another production of the same play opens at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Thomas Middleton's Jacobean blood, guts and lust tragedy is compared with Shakespeare's Hamlet in the introduction written for the theatre programme, which for me is like comparing meat pie with rare roast sirloin.

From the team behind Coram Boy, Melly Still and Ti Green's "in yer face" modern dress production comes with an advisory for children (15+) and opens with a simulated orgy for those in the audience who need to get out more. The opening has loud rock music and scenes of rape and debauchery so that Vindice's (Roy Kinnear) explanation of characters and previous events has been anticipated and seen in explicit detail by this prologue.

An animation of the head of Vindice's betrothed Gloriana, who was poisoned by the duke, turns into a skull with graphic effect as her tongue wriggles out becoming a snake. Vindice tells us of her fate and the reason for his disguise to infiltrate the court. He carries her skull to remind him of the reason for vengeance and her ghost appears to remind him of his mission. The set is quite overpowering with lush panels of painted, partially clothed, peopled murals which rotate on the Olivier's stage to change the scene. The circular stage in used to inject Bacchanalian excitement but instead of corruption we get a circus of sex acts as every niche hides some lewd coupling.

Rory Kinnear speaks the verse well but has such a tender and naturally kind disposition it is hard to think of him as having the venom of the vengeful Vindice. Kinnear seems more at home in the scenes with a comedic edge than in the nasty and murderous. He has to make the transition from dark suited, long haired bearded, hippy recluse to hip, streetwise, court hanger on with satin jerkin and back again to perfect his disguised identity. With the sole exception of the virtuous sister, the virginal (but boring) Castizia (Katherine Manners), all Middleton's other characters are nasty or flawed. Even Vindice's mother Gratiana (Barbara Flynn) is willing to sell her daughter to the Duke's son Lussurioso (Elliot Cowan).

The Duke (Ken Bones) makes his evil end in kissing the poisoned lips of an attractive young girl who is the skull of Gloriana disguised under a long haired wig and given a body in a frock held up by Vindice. The Duke is then made to watch his wife (Adjoa Andoh) committing adultery with his bastard son Spurio (Billy Carter) and has his tongue nailed down to prevent him calling out.

The names of Middleton's characters are fun with the bastard Spurio and the sons Supervacuo and Ambitioso but fun names are not enough to sustain almost three hours of bloodthirsty theatre. A straw poll of my friends and colleagues seemed to find the men enjoying this more than the women, so a bit like a lap dancing club then . . . . Give me the Royal Shakespeare Company's straightforward rendition of these Jacobean tragedies rather than a modern day epitome of salaciousness and extreme brutality.

The Revenger's Tragedy
Written by Thomas Middleton
Directed by Melly Still

Starring: Rory Kinnear
With: Adjoa Andoh, Tom Andrews, Ken Bones, Donatella Cabras, Billy Carter, Elliot Cowan, Conor Doyle, Barbara Flynn, John Heffernan, Peter Hinton, Derek Howard, Pieter Lawman, Jane Leaney, Tommy Luther, Katherine Manners, Rob McNeill, Simon Nagra, Pamela Merrick, Rick Nodine, Jamie Parker, Richard Shanks, Ross Waiton, Lizzie Winkler
Lighting: Paul Anderson
Sound: Paul Arditti
Movement: Rick Nodine
Music: Adrian Sutton and Different Gear
Fight Director: Paul Benzing
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 7th August 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th June 2008 performance at the Olivier, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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