Melly Still's over-produced, under-directed staging is so busy underlining its zeitgeist credentials that much of the play's depth is lost.
Considering the blood-soaked Jacobean drama “The Revenger’s Tragedy” calls for the slaughter of at least seven characters in the final scene, it should be impossible for a production to be accused of overkill. Alas, no. Melly Still’s over-produced, under-directed staging is so busy underlining its zeitgeist credentials that much of the play’s depth is lost. Although Rory Kinnear is wholly arresting in the central role of Vindice, the flurry around him risks being — to misquote the exactly contemporaneous “Macbeth” — full of sound and fury but signifying dangerously little.
Vindice is eaten up with a lust for vengeance because the woman he loved was poisoned by the Duke (Ken Bones) for refusing his advances. Vindice’s well-connected brother Hippolito (Jamie Parker), however, has the ear of the duke’s louche son Lussurioso (Elliot Cowan) and thereby inveigles the disguised Vindice into the court.
From there, swift-thinking Vindice sets up and/or hijacks a spiraling succession of increasingly nasty murder plots involving the duke’s three legitimate sons and the duplicitous duchess, who is secretly having an affair with her husband’s bastard son Spurio (ice-cold, lethal Billy Carter).
Helmer Still shows her hand from the over-extended opening. Blasts of contemporary club sounds crash and throb against the fervent wail of Jacobean countertenor singing as actors in modern-dress — and undressed — aggressively pose, grope and pelvic-thrust their way through a backstory sequence whose strenuous choreography illustrates the agility of the cast rather than any dramatic intent.
Still’s production is strongest in the play’s most famous scene. Vindice and Hippolito lure the priapic Duke to a secret meeting place where he kisses what he imagines to be a virgin. As he does so, Vindice whips off a wig revealing the poisoned skull of his long-dead love.But the director over-cranks the engine. The sound and visuals approach meltdown as the men’s lust for killing goes from shocking absurdity to empty showmanship.
The play is not famous for its subtlety — not for nothing are two of the sons’ names Ambitioso and Supervacuo. Yet Still creates such a rapaciously sardonic tone throughout that the luster of the court is lost. Even more damagingly, with everything appearing debased and without a range of moods or emotions, events become dully inevitable — a series of foregone conclusions.
In addition, Ti Green and Still’s overstated costume designs leave nothing to the audience’s imaginations and give the actors little room for character development. Adjoa Andoh’s Duchess, for example, can’t do anything but be grandly carnal because, unlike everyone else, she’s in crimson velvet — backless and figure-hugging, natch.
The sets also present as many problems as they solve. The three rooms on the revolve are divided by atmospheric corridors in which the plotters lurk. But as her production runs out of location ideas, Still resorts, as she did in “Coram Boy,” to whirling the revolve around incessantly to deadening effect.
In keeping with all this activity, many of the perfs are too obvious. We don’t have to try to imagine what Lussurioso is thinking about, for instance, because he masturbates urgently as the set revolves.
The shining exception is Kinnear’s utterly compelling Vindice. The character has a racing, if rancid, intelligence, but Kinnear’s prevailing quality is chilling stillness. His merciless power is never in doubt, and he’s all the more frightening because he only occasionally allows his driving emotions to flash to the surface. The rest of the time, he seems dangerously relaxed, with amusingly sarcastic wit powering his scenes.
Since “The Revenger’s Tragedy” has not had a London production in 40 years, the sheer unexpectedness of this fiercely non-traditional revival may win it an audience — especially with National Theater a.d. Nicholas Hytner programming it in his Travelex season in which two-thirds of the audience pay just £10 ($20). Sadly, however, in terms of the play’s true potential, even at that low price they’re being short-changed.