The Revenger's Tragedy
Immersive Theatre and Broken Dolls Theatre
White Bear Theatre
Perhaps it is not surprising that producer Rachel Ryder and director James Tobias have both previously worked on Grand Guignol, for Middleton's over-the-top, blood-drenched drama seems in the same tradition, and though this production eschews the splattering of Kensington gore, it has no qualms about the gratuitous brutality that Middleton (or Cyril Tourneur to whom it was formerly attributed) makes so much part of his drama.
Its excesses are partially contained by Tobias and costume designer Rachel Cartlidge's conceit of turning the Italian ducal court into a travelling circus troupe, the Duke himself the red-coated ringmaster. It is a court where rape, incest and infidelity are rife. The Duke has married a second time and with the offspring of both marriages, plus a bastard, he has five sons. Lussurioso, from his first marriage, is his heir but two of the others plot to remove him.
This bloodbath of revenge begins when the Duke lusts after chaste Gloriana, and, being spurned, poisons her. Her lover Vindice now sets out to avenge her and, when his courtier brother Hippolito finds Lussurioso is looking for someone to do his skullduggery, he sees an opportunity to introduce Vindice to the court Disguised as Piato, who calls himself a bone-setter, he here becomes trapeze catcher Lussurioso's physio. That's when he discovers that Lussurioso has the hots for trapeze star Castiza and wants help coercing her into bed. He doesn't realise that this Piato is actually Castiza's brother. The Duchess's youngest son has been put in prison for raping a courtier's wife; the peeved Duchess is having an affair with the Duke's bastard and—well, let's just say there is a lot going on.
With Liam Mulvey and Matthew Leigh a strong Hippolito and Vindice and a cast that handles the text with intelligence, you can just about unravel this tangle of contrivance. That is helped by the simplicity of the staging which concentrates attention. A draught-fluttered, frayed, red cloth against the black box wall the only setting, providing a hiding place as well as vivid colour, and the circus costumes create a vibrant picture. Tobias builds up his atmosphere with a lavish and eclectic use of music, making vocal demands on the actors' voices which they meet with ease, though when I changed my seat at the interval I did discover a slightly less happy balance.
With the Duchess's sons played as clowns—one in pierrot costume (Andrew Futaishi), two others as a fast-talking bouncy double-act (Barry Brosnan and Ross Henry Steele)—the pace is fast, the humour heightened and a jokiness prevails that, until the murders and mutilations begin to pile up, keeps the gruesomeness at bay. Adam Alexander's petulant, slightly camp Lussurioso adds a touch of humour too. You really can't get too upset about the awful things his family does and gets done to them. In contrast, Jodie Raven's Castiza and Claire Lacey as her mother give them a touching reality.
After the interval, things go so rapidly they could easily leave the audience behind. The horrors eventually strike home when the brakes go on as the Duke is tortured. A scene in which shiny steel is used mimetically on a fully clothed body becomes extraordinarily unsettling as it indicates rather than performs its mutilations.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton