It is probably unrelated to Riverside Studio Three's well-deserved reputation as the most uncomfortable fringe venue in London for audiences, but the happy fact is that Sam Shammas's production of Middleton and Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy clocks in at a brisk hour and fifty minutes including interval. Shammas opts for rigorous trimming of each individual scene rather than the excision of vast swathes of text, and consequently retains almost all of the shape of this Jacobean doom-fest. Nevertheless, in the final analysis the production does not really work. The wide, shallow, close-up modern studio space is strongly at odds with period costuming, a deal of sunken-eye makeup and a resonant, sometimes openly fruity style of delivery – certainly the lines call for it, but not necessarily to this extent in this environment.
As Vindice, the revenger of the title, Barry Cooper looks unsettlingly like David Gahan of rock group Depeche Mode at the height of his leather-and-smack phase. Cooper hunches over and lowers insanely in propria persona, and on assuming a disguise to weasel his way into the maze of iniquity at the ducal court, he hunches further over and lowers even more, albeit in an Irish accent; he is less a Jacobean malcontent than a shuffling troglodyte. Jeff Bellamy quavers as the elderly Duke, Alex Goldfinch pouts hungrily as the lecher Lussurioso, Paul Willcocks camps the villainy of Ambitioso and Satara Lester alternately bellows as the Duchess and whimpers as Gratiana. Possibly the only people giving straight performances are Justin Brett as Vindice's brother Hippolito and Joanna Woodbridge as his virginal sister Castiza (although Woodbridge has the release valve of doubling as an unfeasibly Mummerset court officer).
In the second half, it becomes apparent that we have simply not been hooked by the supposed atmosphere of treachery, vice and the demands of blood. When the typical Jacobean grotesquerie kicks into gear – as the Duke is poisoned by kissing a skull which he believes to be a country virgin – we show no great signs of caring; the mandatory spectacular Act Five body count seems less as if wickedness has finally overflown its banks than simple attention-grabbing. Shammas seems to have assembled all the pieces for a more than decent production, but for some reason she cannot on this occasion make them fit.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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