Thomas Middleton’s wild stampede of lust and murder looks a little too recognisable for comfort as Well-fangled Theatre invites its audience into the Black Box Studio for The Revenger’s Tragedy. The stage is set like a new age nightclub, complete with gyrating girls, heavy bass and more liquor bottles to line the bar shelves than you would find outside any college accommodation block on bins day. Though a little clumsy to move around the space, the large fragments of set in this production are nonetheless versatile and fitting to the play’s mix of grime and glamour, to the credit of designer Simon Jarvis.
An opening tableau of selfies and shots, grinding and groping is an apt introduction to Middleton’s Jacobean revenge romp. For a play with as many plot convulsions as The Revenger’s Tragedy, to open with a mind-numbing, cyclical sequence does well to introduce us to the character’s vices, the world of the play, as well as foreshadowing some of the focal action to come. Director Mark France, through this opening sequence, has thoughtfully modernised the misogynistic, meat-market attitude which both underpins the play and, in this production, presents a few jarring problems.
It was a breath of fresh air to see Patten-Chatfield play a truly nuanced Castiza
To set aside some very occasional treading on each other’s lines, there are confident performances from the entire cast. Luke Broughton’s Lussurioso and Robbie Nestor’s Junior were wonderfully played as two extremes of excess; the former lascivious but wonderfully vapid, the latter spoilt to the point of being genuinely malicious. Vindice (Jamie Smelt) and Castiza (Hattie Patten-Chatfield) inhabited the verse with a comfort and ease that manages to bring some of the play’s frantic and fantastical machinations down to earth. It was a breath of fresh air to see Patten-Chatfield play a truly nuanced Castiza. Rather than a one-dimensional female symbol, Castiza in the hands of Patten-Chatfield was an empowered and resolute woman whose chastity felt like an integral part of her own power to will. Smelt’s Vindice excelled particularly at asides and, having plenty of these to play with, frequently bewitched the audience firmly onto his side. France also capitalized on an ingenious translation of the play’s opulence and excess by having Sam Hill’s Supervacuo bound across the stage like a Hooray Henry let loose on a stag do.
Middleton’s play is brimming with gluttony of lust, wealth, stupidity, violence and conceited morality. There are moments in this production where that tone of pure excess felt just out of reach for the performances; where characters couldn’t seem to stay afloat in Middleton’s more flamboyant scenes. The revelation of Ambitiosa’s (Anjali Vyas-Brannick) and Supervacuo’s (Sam Hill) failed jailbreak plan was one such example, in which a fuller commitment to these character’s immeasurable immorality could have fleshed out the scene with more humour.
Although the play itself seems sure of where to place women, I couldn’t help but feel this production doesn’t. It is a brave and insightful touch of France’s to delve deeper into what can sometimes be a throwaway subplot, the rape of Antonio’s wife (Belle Kenyon). Interestingly, the cast list goes so far as to give her a name, Hermione, which the play does not. The allusions to her rape being filmed and circulated online also gives this subplot a nuanced and modern psychological depth, which would make this production particularly commendable for going against the play’s mountain of misogyny. But it feels as if France is fighting a losing battle to balance the sexes in this play. The addition of gender-blind casting in the role of Ambitiosa can’t seem to sweep away the play’s wider excess of violence towards women; even the likeable characters are deeply misogynistic and the violence of this production is indiscriminate to gender. However bleak the worldview, Well-fangled theatre have delivered the animation of Middleton’s characters, the depravity of the play’s setting and all in all, a marvellously entertaining and well-measured piece of theatre.
The Revenger’s Tragedy is showing at the Black Box Studio, Department of Theatre, Film and Television, University of York, until Saturday.