- The Revenger's Tragedy
Situated on the South Bank, the Southwark Playhouse, formerly a Victorian-era tea warehouse, has hosted and produced a rich variety of new plays and twentieth-century repertory in the past several years. Despite competition from Shakespeare's Globe just a few blocks away, the Southwark also offers plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, as well as educational programs through its Shakespeare for Schools program. How then does this seventy-five seat fringe theatre manage to stay ahead of its Shakespearean neighbor as well as the rest of the London competition?
An important part of Southwark's strategy is presenting modernized productions of early modern works, in contrast to the Globe's "original practices," and tailoring them to the strengths of its intimate performance space. The recent production of Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy provided an example of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. The adaptation by Meredith Oakes, whose plays have been produced by the Royal Court Theatre and the Royal National Theatre among others, rearranged some scenes and streamlined the script to less than two hours' length while maintaining enough characterization to avoid confusion. Director Gavin McAlinden, best known for his work with Charm Offensive, including the British premiere of Frank McGuiness's Gates of Gold, set the cast on a lively pace. The design team used a minimal set, few props, and a black, white, and red color scheme to keep the performance visually simple. This bare-bones approach allowed audience members to [End Page 97] concentrate on the solid acting and the clever modernization of the setting and costumes.
Though Middleton's plays, The Revenger's Tragedy in particular, have experienced a welcome revival in recent years, staging a play by one of Shakespeare's fellow playwrights is always a tricky proposition. The play's embeddedness in early modern English theatrical culture makes it difficult to contextualize. The allusions to and parodies of other contemporary plays, the dark humor, tolerance of misogyny, and tendency toward melodrama can be lost on modern audiences. Revenge as a motivation is not alien to us, but we typically encounter it coupled with a morally straightforward heroism. Morally ambiguous, self-destructive early modern revengers can be difficult to process. Thus, in choosing to avoid a Globe-style historical performance, the Southwark Playhouse's modernization looked to elements from film and television to establish a familiar context for Middleton's play while retaining the original language. Most prominent of these elements was the popular-culture construction of the mafia, which helped the audience to engage with the play's themes of revenge and betrayal. Generous helpings of postmodern irony contextualized the violence and misogyny.
The tense familial relations between the Duke and his sons were illuminated through the mafia premise. Dressed in a neat black suit and shirt, red tie and pocket square, Patrick Myles's Lussorioso was the favorite son, clearly a smooth Machiavellian who attempted to manipulate the court to his advantage while keeping his hands as clean as his clothes. His brothers shared his ambition but were resolutely and sometimes hilariously inept mobster wannabes. Their loose 1970s disco clothing evoked a camp hedonism. The Duke's officers were marked as subordinates by their uniform black suits, white shirts, and black ties. Vindici's costume was identically monochrome save a red tie similar to Lussorioso's. These costumes alluded to Quentin Tarantino's mobsters from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. In contrast, Antonio's white suit and hat unsubtly established his probity among the villains, but also ironically recalled John Huston's incestuous father character in Chinatown.
Having established a cinematic context, the production adapted Tarantino's exaggerated, cartoonish-yet-gruesome method for...