Villains in a Vicious Circle

Ironically, Lord Goodman may yet go down as a backhanded benefactor to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Every time the Arts Council tightens its screws on the company's subsidy, arguing that one National Theatre is enough, the RSC bounces back with some victory of sheer theatrical resource over economics, so brilliant as to suggest that it works best with its back to the wall.

Its new Stratford production of The Revenger's Tragedy is budgeted on a shoestring. It contains no star names. It is staged on a set from last year's Hamlet. Its costumes appear to have been run up out of old oilskins and aluminium paint. It is one of the finest things Peter Hall's regime has accomplished.

It is also, significantly, the kind of experiment in sensibility that a national museum of drama cannot and should not be expected to attempt. Two seasons ago the RSC gave startling new life to Marlowe's Jew of Malta by playing it as macabre farce, a kind of Elizabethan horror-comic. Trevor Nunn's production of Tourneur's (or was it Middleton's?) darkling welter of incest, rape and regicide is clearly a companion effort.

Judiciously applying a comic approach here and there, it conjures astonishing vitality and coherence out of a text neglected as unplayable for three centuries. Balancing terror and absurdity, it points the way back to a kind of theatrical response killed off by naturalism and the novel: the suspension not only of disbelief, but of belief, too, with which audiences up to the end of the nineteenth century revelled in with such hybrid classics as Oroonoko, The Lyons Mail, and The Count of Monte Christo.

It is with them that The Revenger's Tragedy, and much of modern drama since Shaw, belong. Tourneur's plot swings wildly from passionate earnest to arrant implausibility. At one moment Vendice, the revenger, rails in magnificent poetry against the corruption of the human condition; at the next he is plotting with Machiavellian delight to murder the lecherous Italian duke who killed his own mistress, by tricking him into kissing her poisoned skull. In one scene he tempts his mother to sell his sister as concubine to the duke's heir. In another, he reduces her in a matter of minutes to sobbing repentence. There's no attempt at consistent motivation. The scenes stand by themselves, moments of pure, luridly effective theatre.

Or rather, the only consistency is a Jacobean equivalent of the tone of sardonic, fascinated disgust with which a later Italian society was savaged by Fellini in La Dolce Vita. The Revenger's Tragedy is much the same kind of circus of viciousness, delighting in each exposure of degeneracy in high places, in the grotesque distortions to which lust drives humanity. The equation with Marlowe's Jew is accurate: as Barabbas revels in his own villainy, Vendice revels in showing the villainy of others. Ultimately their delight is comic, closer to the spirit of satiric cartooning than tragedy.

To bring thie out, Christopher Morley, the designer, has conceived the whole evening as a carnival of stark blacks, whites, and glittering silver. The masked court whirls in a torchlit pavane out of a sable limbo into diseased phosphorescence. The scenes of charnel-poetry take on a funereal pomp: at the other end of the scale, the duchess's idiot sons appear as chalk-faced clowns from a silent film, bickering and cuffing like Laurel and Hardy in ruffs. (Their names are felicitous: Ambitioso, Supervacuo and Junior.)

Spitting with power

In the nature of the enterprise, the first performance inevitably showed uncertainties. It will take some playing-in with audiences for the cast to discover how far they can let laughter go before choking it on horror; how to turn the mood of a scene on a sixpence from send-up to sublimity. But already their control is astonishing. As Vendice, Ian Richardson shows enormous gain in voice and presence since the days when he gambolled in duplicate round the streets of Ephesus. He's better at melodious plaint than at icy bile, but it's a commanding performance, spitting with power. Patience Collier makes his mother's repentance not only acceptable but moving, and Brenda bruce surprises with the harsh abandon of her nymphomaniac duchess.

But the most interesting performance is Alan Howard's as the duke's effeminate heir. Like Redgrave, he is a nervous, sometimes over-busy actor, afraid that conviction will crash the moment he stops miming. But he establishes the character with imaginative , balletically sharp physical strokes - an empty, small-toothed smile, a twitching cheek, a convulsive, prowling walk. It's the kind of performance the play demands, impressing its image so bitingly its motivations scarcely matter..

Ronald Bryden

The Observer, 9.10.1966.

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