The Revenger’s Tragedy (La tragedia del vendicatore)
Reviewed – 4th March 2020
“The partnership between Cheek by Jowl and Piccolo creates an energetic work of the most satisfying and unforgettable kind”
We enter the theatre to an open stage paradoxically shut tight by a wooden barrier, stretching end to end. Whatever is about to happen must be barred from view until the time is right. It’s a blockade both stark and titilating—an arresting alternative to the traditional curtain, and—like a wall surrounding a citadel under attack—a hint of bloody conflict to come. We are about to encounter the grand guignol world of Jacobean tragedy.
The empty space distinguished by one, bold item of physical design is, of course, a hallmark of set designer Nick Ormerod, founder member of Cheek by Jowl, just as the bold, flamboyant acting style that is to follow, is equally the hallmark of director Declan Donnellan, the other founder of the company. In recent years, Donnellan and Ormerod have worked with a number of other world famous companies—and for this production of The Revenger’s Tragedy, now assigned to the authorship of Thomas Middleton—Cheek by Jowl has signed up with the Piccolo Theatre of Milan, a company equally well known for its reinterpretation of the classics. It’s a genius collaboration.
As the play begins, the company, dressed in modern suits and dresses, dance on stage. This is a stylised line up—the actors free to create their own signature movements—as the protagonist, Vindice (Fausto Cabra), introduces them. He swiftly paints for us a picture of a Renaissance court steeped in the most lurid vices known to men. We discover that Vindice (whose name means vengeance) has a particular reason to know each character, and their vices, well. Starting at the top, with the lustful, amoral old Duke, who has murdered Vindice’s fiancée for rejecting his advances, Vindice plans an elaborate poison and blood soaked revenge on the whole pack of them. This court is a crazy, upside down world where sons betray their mothers, mothers pimp their daughters, bastards commit incest, and Vindice, by no means immune from craziness himself, employs the skull of his dead lover Gloriana to ensnare the Duke. So that makes it a win for necrophilia as well.
Ormerod’s set design reveals this world in a series of sliding panels in his wall. At any point in the drama, we may see stained glass windows in a sunlit cathedral peeking through. At other moments, backdrops are revealed featuring enlarged Renaissance portraits, whose coolly beautiful subjects either gaze quizzically on all the nastiness unfolding on stage, or, if in groups, are deep in intricate plottings of their own. The backdrops are the light illuminating the murkiness going on downstage, where the characters more often than not, are peering around edges, or donning dark disguises. The lighting collaboration between Judith Greenwood (Cheek by Jowl) and Claudio de Pace (Piccolo) manages these carefully delineated spaces adroitly, and the final view of the stage—with Ormerod’s wall back in place—is a memorable view of the word “vendetta” bathed in appropriately blood red lighting.
Amidst all the jewels of this production, and in the spotlight from beginning to end, are Donnellan’s directing, and Piccolo’s acting. From the dance of future death that opens the show, Donnellan uses physical movement to great effect to show the characters’ intentions. This is particularly necessary in a production where the spoken words are in Italian, and the only English is abridged to short, single lines in a translator above the stage. (Though these lines are well chosen and designed to be picked up by the eye in a single glance.) Donnellan is well served by his actors, with particularly strong performances from Fausto Cabra, and Massimiliano Speziani as the reprobate Duke. The Duke’s equally corrupt sons, played by Ivan Alovisio, Flavio Capuzzo Dolcetta, Christian Di Filippo, David Meden, and Errico Liguori, arrange and rearrange themselves in and around each other in a world of constantly shifting alliances, interspersed by acts of lurid physical violence. It gets so gruesome by the end that the audience can only laugh. Special mention should also be made of the work of Pia Lanciotti who does a brilliant doubling of the faithless Duchess, and Vindice’s mother Gratiana.
This production of The Revenger’s Tragedy is designed to stretch one’s experience of the theatre. It is not for the squeamish. But then, some of the best experiences require a willingness to suspend one’s own expectations. The partnership between Cheek by Jowl and Piccolo creates an energetic work of the most satisfying and unforgettable kind.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Masiar Pasquali
The Revenger’s Tragedy
Barbican until 7th March
Previously reviewed at this venue: