Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester / Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Opened 2 / 4 June, 2008
** / ****

This drama, which sits at the heart of an entire Jacobean genre, has of late been revived every three or four years either in London or elsewhere in Britain, but has not received a major production for twenty. Now two open in the same week, exhibiting intriguing similarities and crucial differences. Indeed, the first disagreement is with the author credit. The play was long believed written by Cyril Tourneur, but in the last century or so the consensus has swung behind Thomas Middleton. Melly Still’s production at the National Theatre goes for Middleton; Jonathan Moore’s at the Royal Exchange pointedly refuses to choose.
All is corruption and lechery at an unspecified Italian ducal court. Even relationships get confused and confusing: the Duke has one legitimate son, one bastard and three stepsons. One noblewoman is violated (by the Duke) and dies in the back-story, another (by a stepson) as the action begins, and the illegitimate son is having it away with the second Duchess. Anti-hero Vindice is already seeking revenge on the Duke for the “previously” death of his beloved, and disguises himself to enter the service of the duke’s heir; his first task is to procure the sexual services for his master of his, Vindice’s, own sister. The absurd complexity mingles with a strong vein of black humour common to all such revenge tragedies, and culminates here when Vindice is re-engaged under his own name and commissioned to kill his disguised self.
Both productions take heed of the comic potential, and find in it a contemporary sensibility which leads them to modern-dress stagings: suits and casuals for Moore, suits and designer club gear for Still, whose aesthetic blends period and modern in a way that suggests a Gothic fantasy of modern-day Hoxton. Even the score combines a counter-tenor singer with live DJ work. Moore may have taken the same cue – when the Duke’s murder is drowned out, Vindice’s brother remarks, “Thanks to loud music” – but opts for a wilfully eclectic selection of source songs from “The Sun Has Got His Hat On” to Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” and beyond.
But the core distinction is in the extent to which each production allows itself to be seduced by the light side, as it were. Still may include unexciting dance sequences of the kind which seem almost to have become mandatory in revivals of classical texts in the Olivier, but she is fundamentally aware of the tension between humour and horror at the play’s core. Moore, in contrast, puts pretty much all his chips on comedy. It is not simply a matter of interpolating lines or entire characters (a stage manager walks on at one point to tell a character that he has been cut), it becomes personified in the respective lead actors.
Having been infuriated by Stephen Tompkinson’s excessive comedics in Arsenic And Old Lace and Charley’s Aunt, I was curious to see how he would play against type in this Manchester production. He doesn’t. All the goggle-eyed mugging and daft voices are still present; in disguise, he resembles Charles Hawtrey trying to impersonate Dave Vanian of The Damned. I fear my only hope now for ever seeing Tompkinson act on stage on a human scale lies in a Botox overdose. In contrast, Rory Kinnear at the National knows that the best way to find comedy is to be serious, not to play a comic version of seriousness; the oscillations between his revenger’s passion and his sardonic commentary are no more jarring than those of Hamlet’s “antic disposition”, and overall he compares to Tompkinson, as Hamlet also said, like Hyperion to a satyr. (Hint to casting directors…) He is at the heart of a production where language and plot are altogether clearer than in Manchester (where even Vindice’s name is persistently mis-pronounced, ignoring the verse metre) and in which the frenzy of the events portrayed dictates the playing style, not vice versa.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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