The Revenger's Tragedy Is Equal Parts Macabre And Mischievous

The Revenger's Tragedy, Barbican ★★★★☆

By Maire Rose Connor Last edited 17 months ago

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The Revenger's Tragedy Is Equal Parts Macabre And Mischievous The Revenger's Tragedy, Barbican 4
Image © Masiar Pasquali

Beneath a neon red sign reading 'VENDETTA', the cast of The Revenger's Tragedy partake in a frenzied danse macabre, moving spasmodically across the stage, as if mere marionettes controlled by a rather highly strung puppet master.

This is how director Declan Donnellan has chosen to bookend Cheek By Jowl's first Italian language production, an adaptation of Thomas Middleton's 1606 Jacobean revenge tragedy, set in an unnamed Italian court. In doing so, he immediately confronts the audience with a theme that pervades the genre: the inescapability of destiny.

Image © Masiar Pasquali

The characters' names reinforce this notion. Our antihero is Vindice, or 'avenger' (Fausto Cabra), who obsessively plots the downfall of the depraved Duke he holds responsible for his fiancée's untimely death. Then there's the Duke's equally repellant sons, the shallow Supervacuo (Christian Di Filippo), the Machiavellian Ambitioso (David Meden), and lecherous Lussurioso (an excellent Ivan Alovisio), who conspires to make Vindice's virtuous, virginal sister Castiza (Marta Malvestiti) his mistress.

The feebleness of free will in the face of pre-ordained fate is a key element of dramatic tragedy, though in this play the concept causes little internal strife. Instead, the characters are reduced to archetype, which allows Donnellan to effectively tease out the darkly comic elements of Middleton's satirically-toned work.

Image © Masiar Pasquali

Take the gruesome murder of the Duke, for example. In a very clever set piece featuring eruptions of blood, a severed tongue, and a Hitchcockian film montage, the Duke is brutally butchered. But the cartoonish, Berlusconi-esque sleaze with which Massimiliano Speziani portrays the Duke, coupled with the farcical elements that precede and succeed the scene (including a Weekend At Bernie's-style bit of physical comedy) render the scene more exhilarating than outright disturbing.

Image © Masiar Pasquali

The comedic elements of the play are, at times, impeded by the glitch-prone English subtitles. Timing is everything in comedy, and there are a few lines that don't quite land for non-Italian speakers. That said, the charisma of the cast and the surprising relevancy of the play's themes — a scene in which the Duke's youngest son casually relies on the power of his family and high level corruption to evade justice for rape resonates strongly in a post-MeToo world — go some way to make up for it.

Gleefully gory, macabre yet mischievous, Cheek By Jowl's The Revenger's Tragedy is a stylish and energetic satire that succeeds in translating Jacobean drama for the 21st century.

Image © Masiar Pasquali

The Revenger's Tragedy is at the Barbican Centre until Saturday 7 March. Tickets from £16 - click here to book.

Last Updated 05 March 2020