Wildfire at Midnight

Trevor Nunn's swaggering production of The Revenger's Tragedy reaches London, at long last, after its 1966 Stratford premiere. Here are two families - one common, one ruling-class, headed by a great Duke - entangled in one of those Italianate vendettas which fascinated Jacobean London. Vendice, head of the common family, blames the Duke for the death of his girlfriend and father. The Duke's wife has three sons by a previous marriage: one of them has recently been charged with rape. Their mother wants to seduce her husband's bastard. Beside stepsons and basterd, the Duke is also endangered by his heir - who wants to seduce Vendice's sister. The author (Tourneur or Middleton) plunges us into this wild situation - which he calls 'wildfire at midnight, gunpowder in the court' - making his actors tell it in quick, difficult verse. "I am past my depth in lust," says the Duke's heir, "and I must swim or drown." The audience, too, sink or swim in his whirlpool: it is the director's job to sort it all out, without being a bore. Nunn succeeds brilliantly, using spectacle not for its own sake but to illustrate the story, to illuminate the marvellous text. The words are paramount. That is why Nunn's production surpasses the National Theatre's gallant failure with The White Devil - a comparable and, perhaps, even finer revenge-play.

Nunn begins with a dumb show. The glittering, silvery courtiers of the Duke's household surge forward from a deep black box, brandishing masks and torches: as they swish in patterns about the stage, like brilliants juggled on black velvet, we get a clue about who's being raped, who's in charge, who's paying court to whom. (Although the Aldwych environment offers more intimacy and immediacy, this dumbshow was even better on the Stratford stage, which is deeper, and permits the use of real torches, smoking and stinking.) Now the author takes over. Vendice, the revenger, in Hamlet black with a skull, describes his courtly enemies - and they silently introduce themselves to us , as if they were in church, bowing as they cross themselves: we, the audience, are treated as the altar, the eyes of God. Each of the seven male principals (unchanged since 1966) has his own way of moving, his own distinctive sculptured outline, a triumph of the subsidiary arts of designers and cosmeticians.

This hell-hole seems a real world. Each prince has his own followers, in his own style: we know the hierarchy and the factions. These Shakespearians speak the language as though they were born to it. They don't 'send-up' the savage jokes: they think they're funny. Ian Richardson, the twice-disguised revenger, operates with three Jacobean voices: posing as a malcontent thug for hire, he has the dark, melancholy tone of a Jacques; disguised as a courtier, he sounds as bright and silly as his own Bertram; when in earnest he uses his fine personal blend of the Gielgud quiver and the Olivier yelp. The three women - evil noblewoman, corrupted mother and pure sister - are all poignantly played: but I'm out of sympathy with both author and director in the womenfolk scenes, especially the two episodes of mother-punishment. Nunn has built up the Duchess's expulsion from court into something needlessly sadistic, from a mere hint in the text. The author turns insanely puritanical when dealing with the sexuality of mother and sister. He has stopped trying to alienate us, to make us think: his punitive earnestness gives me the creeps. Still, it's his play, and Nunn has given him his head.

D.A.N. Jones

The Listener, 4.12.69.

Alan Howard as Lussurioso

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