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The Revenger’s Tragedy at the Barbican Theatre | Review

The Revenger's Tragedy - Credit Masiar Pasquali.
The Revenger’s Tragedy – Credit Masiar Pasquali.

Cheek by Jowl presents their Italian-language version of Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. In essence, a tightly wound, tense, complex unfolding as the eponymous revenger, Vindice (Fausto Cabra) stalks the Duke in the pursuit of immediate justice.

Through Vindice’s hunting, his brother, his mother and sister are pulled into a knot of binary justice. As for the target of reprisal, the Duke’s sons scuff the lapels of tailored Italian suits as they jostle for predominance, and a sultry stepmother practices incestuous cuckolding all the while. The coming and goings are a little Eastenders to start with and suffer from subtitles and seventeenth-century prose, and still, unrelenting quality and originality are ultimately allowed to shine through the complexity. This intellectual challenge is made more difficult by the necessary disguises and mistaken identities, all leading to a bit of whispering in the stalls of ‘are they the same person?’. You’ll need your thinking cap for this.

An aggressive script cut, Cheek By Jowl’s knotted performance and the intense performance from Cabra all grab the audience, hard, and don’t let go. This cerebral manhandling can be rough at times, unrelenting scenes of complex characters will test your short term memory and ability to read, understand and enjoy all at once – but the gestalt rewards and unnerves. The Duke’s two younger sons (David Meden and Christian Di Filippo) and that straying stepmother (Pia Lanciotti) bring a superb dark comedy that sets a slide between tragi-comedy and easily slips between the two.

At times, this already complex piece does test the audience in ways that will challenge even the most planet-brained viewer. If you can keep up with the stylised English subtitles, disguised characters, inter-threaded plot lines and motivation – you’ll soon be called upon again to make sense of live TV feeds on set and bookends to the show which break the fourth wall. What justification there is for these ball-balls is hard to find in an already vibrant and thoughtful piece.

As each thread is looped over the another and pulled tight, the story climaxes but with a vengeance reeked, justice is not complete. The possessive apostrophe of the title shifts past the S as murderous retribution is sought, achieved and resought. Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod find a comedy with a fun flavour to start but a bleak and bitter aftertaste. At a time when retribution isn’t a cocktail many of us have experienced in our ordinary modern lives, this story speaks to a devious, dormant part of the human psyche – and then reminds us how Pyrrhic any victory is likely to become.

4 stars

Review by Will Nash

Intrigue, corruption, lust and the thirst for power collide in a 17th-century Italian court in this Jacobean drama. Seeking retribution for the murder of his fiancée by the Duke, Vindice is drawn into a terrible helter-skelter of punishment that throws his very identity into crisis.

Written by Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Middleton at a time of growing social unease, the play reveals a government embroiled in shady affairs and a society obsessed with money, social status and fame.

Created by Cheek by Jowl’s director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod for Milan’s renowned Piccolo Teatro, The Revenger’s Tragedy is transformed into a macabre dance of death and performed by a charismatic ensemble of Italian actors – of which 10 are recent graduates from the Piccolo Drama School – Ivan Alovisio (Lussurioso), Marco Brinzi (Judge), Fausto Cabra (Vindice), Flavio Capuzzo Dolcetta (Junior), Christian Di Filippo (Supervacuo), Raffaele Esposito (Ippolito), Ruggero Franceschini (Bishop), Pia Lanciotti (The Duchess/Graziana), Errico Liguori (Spurio), Marta Malvestiti (Castizia), David Meden (Ambizioso), Massimiliano Speziani (The Duke), Beatrice Vecchione (Doctor), and Marouane Zotti (Jailer).

The production continues its international tour with performances at Piccolo Teatro Strehler, Milan (22-28 February), Barbican Theatre, London, where the company are Artistic Associates (4-7 March – press night on 4 March at 7.45pm), Centro Dramático Nacional, Madrid (11-14 March) and Les Gémeaux, Sceaux – Paris (18 March-2 April).

Read our Q&A with Ivan Alovisio

London, Barbican, UK
4-7 March 2020


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