When you’re a critic, people coo and say how nice it must be seeing all those films and plays. Well, sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s just plain hard work. All too often what you see is rubbish plus, in the back of your mind, you’re always wondering what you’re going to write – and if it’s really is bad are you just going to despair or use the brain cells you’d otherwise occupy with processing what you’re seeing on writing amusingly vituperative copy (I always envy those people).
The other time you panic is when you sit and think how on earth am I going to write this up and do it justice? I had much that feeling watching The Revenger’s Tragedy at the National. Not that it was bad, far from it, but it’s so over the top that you don’t know where to start.
How about with how I described it to colleagues the day after: imagine an episode of The Sopranos written by Quentin Tarantino, produced by Derek Jarman and Baz Luhrman. A Kill Bill with punk, New Romantic and drug-fueled Eurotrash sensibilities, if you will. But that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface.
It’s bloody for sure – at the end about 20 corpses litter the stage and almost none of the main characters makes it out alive. But that’s Jacobean tragedy for you. (Me, I’d just like the white shirt concession, as they’re going to go through hundreds by the end of the run.) A severed tongue gets thrown at one point, but there’s nothing to upset anyone other than the very squeamish (who shouldn’t have gone in the first place).
It’s blackly funny, which appealed to both sets of audiences when I saw it (yes, I liked it enough to go back) and the talented cast grab the text with relish. It often sounds like a purely contemporary play, although there are odd sniggers at some of the phraseology (I must confess to an unseemly giggle at the mental image that “stairfoot panders” evoked).
The design, by director Melly Still and Ti Green, doesn’t belong to one period and mixes garish murals and religious iconography with cool cityscapes and faded gentility. The whole rotates, presenting four different rooms intersected by two “corridors”—for me, this was a triumph, adding movement, emphasising the labyrinthine intrigues of the court and adding extra snapshots of life. For example, at the very beginning, the court processes onto the stage and we are treated to glimpses of what’s happening in various rooms (primarily the rape of Lady Antonio), but we also see characters in the corridor in activities that reveal their natures (acts I won’t traumatise your delicate sensibilities with).
The cast is excellent, with the standouts being Rory Kinnear, as the revenger Vindice; Elliot Cowan, as the lustful Lussurioso; and Billy Carter, as Spurio, the Duke’s bastard son. Mr Kinnear has a ball playing Vindice, his alias Piato and a disguised version of himself (confused? He is when he’s hired to kill Piato!), bringing out the three different characters and running from tragedy to uproarious comedy. He’s ably supported by Jamie Parker, Barbara Flynn and Katherine Manners as his virtuous family, and Mr Cowan by Tom Andrews and John Heffernan as his not so virtuous step-brothers.
I can’t say I was overly moved by having a live DJ (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) and live musicians, but the music was used to excellent effect. The dancers I could really lose, especially the one who dances by herself in the background at one point – most distracting.
Much fuss has been made about whether or not it was Thomas Middleton who wrote the play, but such arguments are superfluous. Enjoy The Revenger’s Tragedy for the bold coup de theatre it is.
And I must give credit to Travelex for including it in the £10 ticket season. This has been a triumph and makes taking a chance on theatre possible again (and indeed, the reason why I went back). Long may it continue!
To August 7. Box office: 020–7452 3000; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk