Imagine a sexually promiscuous world in which corrupt people abuse their power for their own personal gain. Doesn’t take that much imagining, does it? Which is why Fiona Buffini’s production of Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy translates uncomfortably well to both its 1970s glam rock setting and our own contemporary world.
Originally set in Italy and first performed in and around 1606 at the Globe in London, Middleton’s play focuses on Vindice’s revenge against the Duke, who murdered Vindice’s fiancée because she resisted the Duke’s sexual advancements. As part of his revenge Vindice ups the ante and decides to knock-off the Duke’s son who, incidentally, seeks to seduce Vindice’s sister. While all this is going on, other characters are busy committing all sorts of heinous acts: rape, incest, adultery – oh, and murder – all so they can move up a corrupt social and political ladder. I told you the play had an uncanny contemporary resemblance.
The performance rattles along at a furious pace, as transmissions between scenes are punctuated by 1970s glam rock samples. Glam rock performances of Early-Modern plays are certainly not new, but at least with this performance there is a good reason as to why the Duke struts his stuff as a Garry Glitter lookalike. At the end of Act One, the Duke invites two schoolgirls with autograph pads at the ready to sit on his bed. “Age hot is like a monster to be seen – my hairs are white, and yet my sins are green”, the Duke says with a wry smile. Lights fade to black. The imagination does the rest.
Nevertheless, the performance is not all about topical references; it works hard to shine a light into the subtlety of corruption and the abuse of power. Jon Nicholl’s sound design might employ crashing guitar anthems, but his precision with the different tonal properties of bass hints towards a radiant darkness that shines just as brightly as Mark Jonathan’s disco-themed setting. Buffini’s incisive direction compliments the design team’s window onto corruption and power in uniquely unsettling ways.
Often a problem with plays from this period placed in a contemporary setting is that the aesthetic dominates the action. In this case, the glam rock setting failed to cover up the fact that some of the performances were far too two-dimensional in a three-dimensional world where everything is not as it seems. And so, for all the work that the performance does to highlight the subtleties of corruption and the abuse of power, it struggles to get some of the basics right. Alexander Campbell as the revenger Vindice is certainly convincing as a man on a mission, but he does not adequately expose the tragedy of what it means to revenge in the first place. Seeking revenge is never sweet, but bittersweet.
Running at 2 hours and 15 minutes, Buffini orchestrates the narrative with accuracy, knowing when to make us think, when to make us cringe, and when to make us laugh. Declan Perring as Lussurioso, the Duke’s son, indulges the audience in the glitziness of lechery that is as at once as darkly comic as it is melancholic. At times Perring’s performance dangerously borders on becoming a pantomime villain, but that’s the performance’s entire point: corruption and the abuse of power makes fools out of us all.
The Revenger’s Tragedy is on at the Nottingham Playhouse until 12th November 2016. Click here for more details.