Review – The Revenger’s Tragedy, National Theatre

Thursday 5 June 2008

Just days before embarking upon one of their mysterious trips a few years’ ago (to Costa Rica, as it happens), the Whingers were thrilled to discover from their trip notes that one of their companions (“land only”) would be none other than Barbara Flynn.

They spent days planning how they would become instant best friends with the quality TV stalwart (Cracker, A Family at War, the milkwoman in Open All Hours) and would spend every evening of the two week tour regaling each other with showbusiness reminiscences and anecdotes and generally excluding all the other people on the tour.

Once they returned to England their bond – rather than dissolving as such friendships inevitably do – would become even stronger. They would be forever popping in and out of each others’ houses, meet up to go shopping and maybe even taking in the occasional (short) play.

When “Bar” (as they would affectionately call her) eventually published her memoirs (In Like Flynn maybe or possibly My Name Is Barbara But Spelt Properly) the Whingers would be surprised, delighted and – well – humbled to see that it was dedicated to they, her dearest friends.

Sadly it turned out to be a different Barbara Flynn; this one did something in IT in Dublin. The Whingers valiantly tried to hide their disappointment and – once they had forgiven her – condescended not to hold her entirely responsible for their crushed dreams and even to affect a degree of amiability towards her.

Anyway, in wistful remembrance of what might have been, the Whingers couldn’t resist a trip to see Barbara Flynn in The Revenger’s Tragedy at the National Theatre. And also, of course, to catch WEW Fave Rory Kinnear too. Excitingly, Kinnear will be in the 22nd Bond film: Quantum of Solace. He will play Bill Tanner who Phil is hoping will turn out to be a relative of Elsie Tanner. Let us hope it turns out not to be another crashing disappointment on the scale of the Barbara Flynn debacle.

Anyway, The Revenger’s Tragedy is a play by Thomas Middleton. Probably. Earlier editions attribute it to Cyril Tourneur which goes to show that even in Jacobean England there probably existed the equivalent of the West End Whingers: mangling facts and throwing literary history into chaos.

Star pulling power notwithstanding, the Whingers had steeled themselves for this one on three counts: not short (about 2hrs 45 as it turned out), an unknown (to us) director – Melly Still – and the threat of a “DJ” (Different Gear).

Now the last time the Whingers attended a discoteque, it was simply the job of the Disc Jockey to put a 45rpm record onto the gramophone when the last one finished. This has apparently all changed now and we admit to having absolutely no idea what they do besides changing records. But they are apparently huge stars in their own right and earn oodles of money.

But more on that later.

So, The Revenger’s Tragedy. You know when you are in trouble when the programme contains not only a plot summary but also a family tree. The man in the seat next to City Slicker was clutching a copy of the “text” which he confessed to having read “several times” that day so that he knew what was going on. There had been no such preparation for the Whingers and their entourage, sadly. So the only thing to do was to sit back and let it all wash over them.

It began rather worrryingly with a big bang and the stage revolving at dizzying speed. Worse still, there was quite a lot of expressive dance, a sexual assault, some projections and other general busyness of the kind that Mr Hytner uses to “disguise” scene changes. When Phil looked at his watch it was 7.45 (it had started five minutes late) and yet no-one had made a start on the actual play.

But it all turned out to be very impressive and engaging. Despite some of the finer points of the plots being lost on us it was also very entertaining. Rory Kinnear was of course excellent, succeeding in providing his own odd quantum of solace in the form of some amusing delivery. And if we weren’t quite clear about the point of the Jewish accent that he seemed to adopt when in disguise, all was forgiven.

Dear, dear ” Bar” did some sterling crying and valiantly ignored the preposterousness of the idea that she wouldn’t recognise her own son once he had shaved off his beard and affected a funny accent.

There was a lot to enjoy including a very gory murder and yet another severed head.

There were quite a few schoolchildren in the audience who had clearly been studying the text as they laughed at bits which can only have been funny if a teacher had told you why they were funny. Perhaps we should have collared one of them after the show and asked them to explain the many references to pandas.

What the purists will make of this is anyone’s guess. The man in the queue behind us at the bar certainly wasn’t impressed. Indeed, he said he hated it and muttered something about it being too EastEnders. We think perhaps his problem was that he was “too informed” which – in the Whingers’ humble opinion – only leads to discontentment and (in his case, apparently) madness.

For counter-intuitively, all the sounds and lights and spinning sets and – yes! – even the music kept the Whingers’ increasingly dull senses stimulated. Full marks to the designers (Ti Green and the director) – not least for impressive three-part set which cleverly incorporates corridors though which the actors can run from scene to scene as the stage revolves, very effectively conveying a sense of running from place to place which is otherwise almost impossible to stage with any sense of speed and distance, let alone convinction. We could only have been happier had the revolve gone up and down as well.

Anyway, as we hinted before, the only thing more puzzling than the plot was the music. “Featuring live music from DJs differentGear”, proclaims the National’s website. Certainly there were two men at record players with headphones on but in what sense this is “live music” eludes us. It’s just one of the many mysteries of the young people of today. But whatever they were doing (and it chokes us to say it) it was very effective.

Footnote: Your homework

In case you should you be tempted to see this production we have – for your convenience – consulted An Sonjae / Brother Anthony, Emeritus Professor of the Department of English Language and Literature at the Sogang University in Korea who offers this plot summary.

Set somewhere in Italy. The main character is Vindice (or Vendice) who lives away from the court. The Duke poisoned Vindice’s beloved nine years ago because she resisted him. His father has recently died from the Duke’s unkindness. Vindice learns from his brother Hippolito that the Duke’s eldest son Lussurioso is looking for an unscrupulous servant. He disguises himself with the name Piato and gets the job, which he finds involves seducing for Lussurioso his and Hippolito’s chaste sister Castiza (most names are figurative). The Duchess has had three sons by a previous marriage, the Duke has one bastard, Spurio. Her Younger Son has raped the wife of a lord, Antonio; the woman killed herself, the Son is now in prison. The Duchess is wooing Spurio. Vindice is happy to find that Castiza is incorruptible, shocked to find their Mother eager to change her mind (she later repents). He reports to Lussurioso that he overheard the Duchess and Spurio agreeing to sleep together; Lussurioso breaks into the bedroom but find the Duke, his Father, with the Duchess. He is arrested for attempted assassination. The Duchess’s two other sons hate Lussurioso; they forge an order for their “Brother’s” execution. Only the Duke has forgiven Lussurioso and set him free; the only “Brother” remaining in prison is their Younger Brother, who is duly executed. The Duke asks Vindice to find him a chaste woman he can corrupt. In a secret place, Vindice gets the Duke to kiss a mask containing the skull of his own dead lady. Poison is hidden in its mouth, and as the Duke slowly dies he sees his wife and Spurio together. Lussurioso sacks “Piato” for his mistake and Vindice offers to “take his place” under his own name. His first job is to murder Piato. He and Hippolito dress the Duke’s body in Piato’s clothes and Piato is assumed to have escaped after killing him. Lussurioso becomes Duke, banishes the Duchess, and throws a party. Vindice and Hippolito play a masque, during which they kill Lussurioso and his three companions. The Duchess’s sons with Spurio, arriving with a similar plan, find Lussurioso dead and kill each other over their claims to be Duke. Antonio becomes Duke and tries to understand what has happened. Vindice hopes to be praised by Antonio, assuming that he too wanted revenge, and boastfully tells what they did. Antonio fears for his own life and orders their immediate execution.

7 Responses to “Review – The Revenger’s Tragedy, National Theatre”

  1. nick Says:

    I saw this yesterday, and I have to agree with what you’re saying, I loved it. Was it just me who found the duchess receiving cunnilingus at the end of act one as she had what appeared to be a mild seizure set to the music as a bit strange?

    Also, the misogyny, oy! The lesbian bodyguard was a nice touch though. and the outfit for the whores. I felt like they were plucked straight from a paris hilton sex video.

  2. Emilia Says:

    If you’d looked up on the right (or is that stage left?) you’d have seen a man singing ‘live’ and some musicians. The singer moved merrily from side to side in time to the music in a most amusing fashion…


  3. Think yourselves not just lucky but blessed that it wasn’t your second Revenger’s Tragedy of the week, and that your first hadn’t been the production currently at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.

    No, just don’t start me.

  4. jack mullen Says:

    cant be assed sitting through revengers tragedy (def not the middleton of the changeling or women beware women…) BUT i must agree with the whingers with regard to HARPER REGAN… first scene was ersatz pinter with no point… 2nd scene ditto. lesley was however remarkable, but the awful ambient council estate chords were just patronisingly bleak and typical of a director bringing “ideas” to the play. The final scene was checkov for northerners.

  5. Sam London Says:

    You have to feel sorry for the woman who gets raped at the start of every performance and then has to turn up as a whore in a really unflattering tight blue frock for the end.

  6. Graham Says:

    It says in the programme that you can ‘download’ the music. I think this means they send you the sheet music through the post and you can recreate it on your pianoforte.

  7. looksgreatonpaper Says:

    Anything where that many people get their comeuppance has to be worthy of sitting through. The whole turning of the ex-lover’s skull into a poison coated puppet is probably worth mentioning aswell – especially the tenderness in the way the literal death’s head puppet was gracefully manipulated…’cause that is how you would treat the skull of your ex-lover isn’t it? They don’t come up with those story lines on Eastenders now do they Mr.-disgruntled-in-the-bar…


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