The Revenger's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur/Thomas Middleton
Directed by Sam Shammas
Performed at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
Wednesday 29th April - Sunday 17th May 1998
"This is one of those shows that delivers exactly what you would expect. It's intelligent, slick and diverting. If there is one exception to its predictability, though, it is that it is exceptionally pacy: a distinct advantage that few productions of Jacobean tragedies can boast. Director Sam Shammas and her admirable company [retain] the bare bones of a play that takes a chilling look at human depravity in a society galloping out of control. Satara Lester gives a multi-faceted, complex portrayal of both Gratiana and the Duchess, switching with extraordinary speed between a virago dripping with sex to a homely matriarch dazzled by promises of courtly life... Julia Knight's epic backdrop provides a suitably sumptuous setting."
Sam Marlowe, What's On, May 1998
"Stylish... This production's dramatic economy marks a watershed in the young director's career, including simple but vivid staging... Joanna Woodbridge...makes a splendid virginal Castiza."
"Barry Cooper's Vindice is beautifully spoken and brings genuine emotion to a part which could easily descend into caricature."
The play, printed anonymously in 1607, was first
ascribed to Cyril Tourneur and was generally accepted as his until
the end of the nineteenth century when Middleton was proposed
as the author. Since then, there has been prolonged debate over
attribution with Middleton gradually emerging as the most likely
candidate, a view supported by recent statistical analysis.
Little is known of Cyril Tourneur (1575-1626). He appears to have worked for a time in the Netherlands, and died in Ireland after accompanying Sir Edward Cecil in an unsuccessful raid of Spanish treasure ships. His known output includes an allegorical poem titled The Transformed Metamorphosis (1600), a lost play The Nobleman (1612) and The Atheist's Tragedy (1613), an elegy on the death of Prince Henry.
Born in 1580, details of Middleton's life are equally sketchy. He may have been a student of law in London and in the 1590s he was at Oxford University, although he probably did not take a degree. Later he was often employed to write pageants to celebrate civic occasions and in 1620 he was appointed chronologer. His masterpieces were tragedies and included Women Beware Women (1614) and The Changeling (1622). In his comedies he was one of the two notable successors to Ben Jonson (the other being Massinger), with his best considered to be A Trick To Catch The Old-One (1604), The Roaring Girl (with Dekker, 1606) and A Chaste Maid In Cheapside (1613). Seventeen other plays survive, some written with William Rowley. Thomas Middleton died in 1627.
The Revenger's Tragedy is set in a dissolute Renaissance court in Italy,
a maelstrom of vice and intrigue.
As the play opens, Vindice is intent on revenging the death of his mistress who has been poisoned by the lecherous old Duke; the Duchess' youngest son has been convicted of rape and she herself is trying to seduce the duke's bastard son; the remainder of the court are bent on usurping each other and seizing the crown. Vindice's brother Hippolito meets with him and suggests ways that he might right the wrongs of the past. For the rest of the play, Hippolito is nearly always at his brother's side, advising, chastising and instigating.
Contriving a way to revenge himself, Vindice disguises himself as 'Piato' and enters the service of the Duke's son, Lussurioso. He bids Vindice seduce a young maiden who turns out to be Castiza, his own sister. Horrified at the situation he finds himself in, he nevertheless continues in his disguise, seeing it as a way of testing the virtue of his sister. To his relief, she spurns him. However, their mother Gratiana is far more willing to go along with the seduction, seeing it as a way to advancement at court. The disgusted Vindice smothers his feelings so as to remain in character, but vows to punish his mother's vileness.
Then Vindice finally carries out his long-awaited revenge on the Duke in a scene of unusual ferocity by tricking him into kissing the poisoned skull of his long-dead mistress. The killer unmasks himself so that the Duke recognises Vindice just as he dies. By dressing the corpse in the Piato disguise, he convinces the rest of the court that Piato was the killer, explaining that Piato must have swapped clothes with the Duke before making his escape.
Shortly afterwards the brothers harangue their own mother for her duplicity. She eventually breaks down protesting that only her son's terrifying ability to cajole and persuade had changed her behaviour so. They make up with her, before brutally killing Lussurioso who they find praying. The remaining members of the ruling family end up murdering each other in a finale that sees greed getting the better of everyone. The only exception is the Duchess, who is banished forever.
In the original Vindice survives the bloodbath, but is executed by the Duke's virtuous successor: a revenger, no matter how just his cause, is a man too dangerous to leave alive. However, in Sam Shammas' production, Vindice's dependence on his brother Hippolito brings about a further twist. Hearing Hippolito's final speech in which he holds his brother fully accountable for their arrest and condemnation, Vindice no longer has any reason to live. Seizing his brother's dagger, he mortally wounds himself, dying before justice can be meted out. Hippolito, feeling cheated even by his brother's death, spits at his crumpled corpse as he is dragged away for execution.
One consequence of the more peaceful era in which
we now live is that traditional mechanisms for replacing
worn-out dynasties - insurrection, exile and regicide - are no
longer acceptable. To see a diseased court so summarily despatched
is as unsettling for us as it was for Middleton's contemporaries,
but it is also appealing. The play's vision of justice done to
a corrupt regime through violence is a rediscovery more exciting
than we would perhaps like to admit.
The most successful production of the play this century in England was Trevor Nunn's at the RSC in 1966, but the last time it was professionally produced was by Di Travis at the Swan Theatre in 1987, with Anthony Sher in the role of Vindice.
"The play has a clear and exact ironic neatness,
is wittily appropriate wild justice and is savagely cruel as a
form of satiric ridicule and punishment."
"Vindice emerges from the tainted crew of the
court with a kind of blasted splendour. They are curling and engendering,
a brood of flat-headed asps, in the slime of their filthy appetites
and gross ambitions. The social corruption which has transformed
them into reptiles has made him a fiend incarnate."
"It seemed to me a play that was extraordinarily
about aspects of our own world where the relationship between
sex, violence and money was becoming increasingly popular, and
expressed through all sorts of things - spy novels, James Bond.
The good life - the life of extraordinary opulence and comfort
- was connected with something fundamentally immoral. What fascinated
me about Vindice was that he was totally schizophrenic; a completely
Sam Shammas Productions
J-C Laurent and Richard de Cordova
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