For a play named after a genre of especially gory theatre, there was very little blood shed in Well-Fangled Theatre’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. Grotesque moments kept in were downplayed, deaths completely mimed and even the iconic scene where The Duke (Joe Osborne) kisses the poisoned, fleshless skull of Vindice’s long dead wife was muted by the decision to largely conceal the skull with synthetic hair. Instead, to varying effects, the director of this production has brought characterisation and moments of darker realism in the play to centre stage.
The most successful piece of drama is before the speaking starts; as you walk into the theatre the actors are looping through a partially choreographed night club scene. In ten minutes early, we watched it through three or four times and started to recognise patterns: Hattie Patten-Chatfield (later playing Castiza) stands on a chair and dances, followed by a spotlight; Neil Tattersall (Spurio) break-dances, a second wait, everyone cheers, he walks over to the bar and is bought a drink. It sets the scene quite well, we are aware we are in a lascivious underworld and surrounded by characters driven by sex, drugs and alcohol. The music works at its best here, overpowering as we walk in and take our seats and exploiting the sound system to its full potential. The looping choreography changes on the last round though – I won’t ruining it – but it lurched me awake, the way they did this was a little harrowing. As an opening, it was very strong.
The production as a whole is fairly mixed. Machiavellian or characters dominate this play and some of them were brilliantly realised. Luke Broughton, Lussurioso, our hedonistic antagonist, is the most fun to watch of the main cast. He prances around the stage, enjoying himself until his death at the play’s climax. His performance is unfortunately more exciting than that of Jamie Smelt (Vindice), who delivers his lines well but whose stage presence is not a good foil to Broughton’s charisma. We are not really routing for him. Lussurioso’s equally villainous step-siblings played by Tatterstall, Anjali Vyas-Brannick (Ambitiosa), Sam Hill (Supervacuo) and Robbie Nestor (Junior) are also entertaining. Nestor’s performance is strong, unsettling at times, as an unrepentant rapist who walks towards his death with curses rather than apologies. His trial for his crime early on in the play is played up, showing the director’s ability to bring out darker aspects of the modern world with a dark play.
The women in the play are left how they are in the Jacobean drama – that is, commodified characters whose sole worth seems to be based on their state of virginity (especially Patten-Chatfield’s Castiza). Women cast in roles originally set out for men, such as Vyas-Brannick, helps update us a little to a modern dynamic, though the team does not try to cover up the play’s inherent misogyny. I was really impressed with the performance of Gratiana (Gemma Head) though; she took a difficult character and rather than making it comic made us pity her. The tensest moment in the second act was when her sons threaten to murder her; we really don’t want her to die and that is a testament to Head’s acting. Victoria Delaney took a different but also strong approach; her larger-than-life promiscuous duchess may have not roused our sympathies, but at least it didn’t hide the flaws in the text.
There were undeniably good aspects of this production and I did enjoy myself. There were moments when the modernisation was truly effective and the actors really shone. Not every experiment worked though and not everything was as polished as the opening moment.