What, is old dad dead?’ Middleton’s Revenge at the National Theatre, London

For many of us the image of a young man in the throws of depression clutching a skull will be a familiar one. Hamlet, right? Wrong.

In this case it is the young and appropriately named Vindice in Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. Middleton as a contemporary of Shakespeare explores in this play many of the same themes as Hamlet. Revenge, Adultery, sexual revulsion and the corruption of the court. However whereas Shakespeare’s play weaves these themes through the consciousness of his eponymous hero, Middleton layers the plot on with a trowel.

I guess this is a play that not everyone knows, and as such the Director throws images and sounds at the audience to tell the story. The play opens with the pounding music and dancers in masques. As the dancers move round the centre stage revolves, showing the differing sections of the play world. Between them all dance members of the court. What starts as dancing become gradually more depraved. The Duke sits in a corridor straddled by a scantily clad blond, a young woman is raped in a quiet room, gradually the cast sheds its clothing the corruption and debauchery of the court is made clear. The stage stops spinning and the music stops suddenly and Vindice sits, all long hair and tatty demeanour, and addresses the audience in the first of many soliloquies. Vindice then reveals the skull of his beloved, poisoned nine years previously for refusing the advances of the lecherous Duke. Macabre and darkly comic.

The play was at turns shocking and funny, grotesque, stomach churningly grim and ridiculous. The scene when Vindice finally kills the Duke was certainly a memorable one. Set again to pounding music (there were apparently live DJ’s) and the revolving stage the Duke staggers around, increasingly bloody until there is a veritable fountain of blood. At this point, tired of the gore, I decided to look elsewhere only to find at the rear of the stage more cavorting and lude goings on! In terms of storytelling it was incredibly effective, vividly portraying as it did the depth to which the corruption of the court had sunk. In terms of visuals it was incredibly memorable, and left me feeling a little like a rabbit in the headlights.

This was a strong cast, and Rory Kinnear as Vindice was certainly very memorable. He played admirably the turns from savage violence to comedy and eloquently presented the moral ambivalence of revenge.

Another strong performance was put in by Billy Carter as the bastard son of the Duke. He too was treated to a number of darkly comic soliloquies, detailing his villainous plot to kill his father and continue his seduction of the Duchess. Carter knew how to work the audience and engaged those of us near the front through his soliloquies as well as when with others on stage.

A special mention also should be made of John Heffernan who as the Duchess's younger son managed to pull off a brilliant comic coup, even in incredibly dark scenes. His dissembling at the difficulties his older brother faced was great fun to watch, and it was good to see this young actor with a sizeable part after having seen him with comparatively smaller roles at the RSC over the last two years.

Adjoa Andoh as the Duchess was also rather spectacular. She managed to convey the sexuality of her character in way which both pushed the story along and gave another level of intrigue to the court set up.

I went along intrigued by Middleton and came away slightly stunned. It seemed as if the Director had taken a leaf out of Middleton’s book and thrown everything at the play.

The Revenger’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton is running at the National Theatre, London until the summer. More information, including cast details and images from the production can be found at http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/.


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