The Revenger's Tragedy

Thomas Middleton in a new version by Meredith Oakes
Southwark Playhouse
(2006)

Publicity image - a skull

For anyone who doesn't find the average Shakespearean body count high enough, Middleton's blackest of comedies might be just the thing. By the end, even Hamlet seems an angel next to Vindici the Revenger's Tragedy.

This is an ambitious production for young Irish director Gavin McAlinden. Having specialised in modern Irish chamber pieces such as Gates of Gold and The Gigli Concert, he has suddenly switched to a full-blooded classical symphony of a production, squeezing a cast of 22 into the small black box of Southwark Playhouse.

The adapter Meredith Oakes has cut something approaching half of the play and this production would have benefited from some early explication. Indeed anyone attending should at the very least read the programme synopsis before the curtain rises on Vicki Fifield's attractive set, and ideally should read the text.

This is vital with a play in which it sometimes seems that everyone is everyone else's brother or son, mother or sister. The confusion is hardly helped by a protagonist (hero is not quite the word) with a pseudonym, taken on following an opening scene in which he has sworn revenge over the coffin of his murdered wife.

For the first half hour, you wade through the hateful filial relationships trying to untangle relationships and motivations. From there onwards, Miss Oakes moves into top gear and the action-packed plot runs helter skelter for the remaining 90 minutes, as different families and factions show no qualms about murdering rivals with the dukedom and revenge the prime motivations.

Middleton may portray mass murder but his stance is always moral, as the innocent survive and the wicked get punished. A pair of brothers who want to kill a half-brother get the instructions a touch wrong and find their much-loved little brother Junior, played by the talented Oliver Kieran-Jones, put to death rather than the intended victim.

The handsome bastard Spurio (Mark Hesketh) may have a few moments of happiness with his step-mother, the Duchess (Sheila Ruskin) but doesn't make it to the end either.

There is much more too with husbands cuckolded, the old lusting after the young and a mother eager to sell her daughter's virginity. At the last, four sexy, masked dancers perform briefly before taking part in a well-choreographed team strangling.

Best of all is the scene in which Kris Marshall as the Revenger Vindici, finally gets revenge for his wife's death. William Whymper, playing the current Duke, may look noble but his lechery has led him to murder and excessive pride. However, he gets his comeuppance, dying a horrible, foaming death in a truly Gothic scene that is a gorier version of Measure for Measure's most memorable moment.

This is all very dark but, largely thanks to asides to the audience from Marshall, there are some comic moments to temper the bloody tone.

So much happens in The Revenger's Tragedy that it can be hard to keep up but by the end this ceases to matter too much as you get swept up by the action.

The acting may be uneven and the play has weaknesses but, eventually, universal enthusiasm together with a plot that has moments of Shakespeare, Webster and even The Greeks, leave a shell-shocked audience well satisfied.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher