BWW Review: THE REVENGER'S TRAGEDY, Barbican Centre
Cheek by Jowl's own Declan Donnellan is directing his first Italian show, introducing the Babican Theatre to the brilliant company of Milan's Piccolo Teatro. Coming straight from a run in Italy, he presents Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy in a bold, uproarious, unabashed, sexy extravaganza of power and corruption.
Nine years after the Duke (Massimiliano Speziani) killed his wife, Vindice (Fausto Cabra) is still out for blood. The occasion arises when Vindice's brother Ippolito (Raffaele Esposito) offers his services to his master Lussurioso (Ivan Alovisio), the Duke's eldest son. A thick plot of deception and betrayal ensues and, as the characters turn against each other power-thirsty and ruthless, Middleton's depiction of the Italian court becomes chillingly relevant to the state of modern politics.
Stefano Massini (of The Lehman's Trilogy fame) pens the original text, which is finespun and gloriously sarcastic in its pessimistic take on authority and its depravity. It's a proper shame that the surtitles that are used to aid comprehension don't match the script in any way. Where Massini's writing is poetic (yet exceptionally accessible) in its whimsical and highly ironic nature, the screen shows a stately and rather stiff version that has nothing to do with the tone of the production.
The grim picture that forms on stage is one where money can buy anything - even a daughter's honour off her own mother. Lechery and intrigue come in the form of the Duke's family, who are lying in wait to betray one another while the Duchess (Pia Lanciotti) is sleeping with her stepson (Errico Liguori). Designer Nick Ormerod closes off the Barbican's enormous space with sliding wooden panels that open to reveal screens that light up with famous Italian paintings (Piero della Francesca's Duke of Urbino and his aquiline nose make an appearance too).
As a whole, the company is enthralling. They're gripping as they unfold their schemes under Donnellan's characteristically refined and riotous direction. His ensemble scenes become elaborate choral tableaux, while the more introspective brushstrokes look equally grandiose in their minute sophistication thanks to an abundance of talent from the steadfast cast. Cabra helms a riveting performance as the titular "revenger".
Standing out from the exorbitantly gifted list of actors are Alovisio and Esposito too, who offer charismatic portrayals along with Marta Malvestiti as the principled (and truly badass) Castizia, Vindice and Ippolito's sister. Lanciotti doubles as the Duchess and the brothers' mother Graziana and, as the latter, shares a hilarious scene with Cabra when he tries to compel her to give up her daughter's - and his sister's - virginity in exchange with status and cash.
Donnellan's coats the inherent humour of the piece in a dark lather of disenchantment. He doesn't shy away from pure gore but he also doesn't hold back on physical comedy as well (he has Christian Di Filippo's Supervacuo hiding constantly behind his character's much taller brother Ambizioso- played by David Meden - who vapes to cope with anxiety and panic attacks), somehow managing to avoid any tacky and overly flashy deliveries that may impact the tonal style.
The Revenger's Tragedy becomes a smart critique on the leading classes as well as an engaging political satire. It's to be said that the production is best received if one understands Italian well, so that Middleton has the chance to go through Massini's wit to reach his public. The language is specific in its idiosyncratic qualities and the company is utterly entrancing in their Italianness, so it's a shame that the surtitles don't give them proper justice. Other than this, Donnellan's first Italian experiment is truly impressive.
Image credit: Masiar Pasquali