BWW Reviews: THOMAS MIDDLETON'S REVENGER'S TRAGEDY, The Hen and Chickens Theatre, October 6 2012
Clowns - scary clowns - greet you as a circus is wrapping up for the evening. They cavort, as a Pierrot arrives on stage, make-up smudged, with a girl whom he rapes - hideously, for there is no other way. It's an arresting scene that marks Immersion Theatre's production of Thomas Middleton's Revenger's Tragedy (at The Hen and Chickens Theatre until 20 October) as one not for the faint-hearted, but for those who appreciate the world of 400 years ago, the harsh world for which Thomas Middleton wrote.
Not that you need a degree in Jacobean drama to understand this bleakest of black comedies (though a quick skim through a synopsis - try this one - is definitely recommended for the uninitiated, if only to keep track of who is related to who and how). It's a tale of lust and love, bastardy and brutality, venality and vengeance. It's one part 1980s Dallas, one part 2010s The Borgias and one part Shakespeare as imagined by Sam Raimi. Take this poetic sardonic soliloquy by the Duke's bastard son:
Duke, thou didst do me wrong, and by thy act
Adultery is my nature.
Faith, if the truth were known, I was begot
After some gluttonous dinner; some stirring dish
Was my first father. When deep healths went round,
And ladies' cheeks were painted red with wine,
Their tongues as short and nimble as their heels,
Uttering words sweet and thick, and when they [rose]
Were merrily dispos'd to fall again:
In such a whisp'ring and withdrawing hour,
When base male-bawds kept sentinel at stair-head,
Was I stol'n softly. Oh, damnation met
The sin of feasts, drunken adultery!
I feel it swell me; my revenge is just:
I was begot in impudent wine and lust.
Stepmother, I consent to thy desires;
I love thy mischief well, but I hate thee
And those three cubs, thy sons, wishing confusion,
Death, and disgrace may be their epitaphs.
As for my brother, the duke's only son,
Whose birth is more beholding to report
Than mine, and yet perhaps as falsely sown--
Women must not be trusted with their own--
I'll loose my days upon him: hate all I.
Duke, on thy brow I'll draw my bastardy,
For indeed a bastard by nature should make cuckolds,
Because he is the son of a cuckold-maker.
Mayhem on this scale is enhanced by a cramped stage - like the courts of the time, there is nowhere to hide - but it places significant burdens on the actors, who must spit with hate, seethe with anger and stab in vengeance. Under James Tobias' assured direction and with a fine central performance from Dan Martin as the Revenger Vindici, the consequences of lust, ambition and arrogance are laid bare. Sure, it's not Legally Blonde, but it's a 400-year-old black comedy the roots of which lie so deeply in human nature that it'll still be performed 400 years from now.