“The world’s so chang’d”, Castiza tells his father – and he would be right. This gender-swapped, steampunk version of The Revenger’s Tragedy turns every aspect of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean play on its head, updating a text that has been performed countless times before in an innovative and memorable way. It seemed especially fitting that I went on International Women’s Day, as the production is packed with some seriously badass performances from its female leads.
The play tells Middleton’s original tale of two siblings seeking revenge on the Duke who poisoned Vindice’s beloved nine years prior to the play’s opening. This being a gender-swapped production, however, the dynamic of the piece is completely changed, as instead it is three strong women who are pitted against each other. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for anyone involved.
The greatest strength of the play undoubtedly lies in the three female protagonists, Vindice, Hippolita and Lussurioso (played by Annie Nelson, Brittany Atkins and Sophie Hannides respectively). Nelson in particular shows her versatility as she adopts the persona and American accent of Piato when Vindice needs to disguise herself, and she slips effortlessly from one character to the other throughout the performance. Hannides is in equal parts seductive and comical, entering in a brilliant scene of excess complete with male dancers in gold lamé hotpants as she takes over her deceased mother’s role as the new duchess. The production is a reminder of the lack of strong female roles in Jacobean theatre, but these women show that traditionally male roles can be played with just as much gusto and fierceness by the fairer sex. The swap also subverts traditional ideas of gender by placing significance on the male Castiza being a virgin, providing an interesting counterfactual history of the time period.
The crypt-like Rose Playhouse provides the perfect backdrop for such a dark play, so much so that the lack of set goes almost unnoticed. The setting also works well in contrast with the steampunk theme, as the modern costumes and music are juxtaposed with the old interior of the playhouse. The actors predominantly use a small stage, on which the audience sit on three sides; apart from a couple of small scenes, the rest of the theatre (largely still an archaelogical site) is unused. On one hand, the intimacy of the small stage makes the audience feel immersed in the heightened action, but I also felt that the space wasn’t used to its maximum capacity or potential.
Using a gender-swapped cast and the seemingly incongruous theme of steampunk for a traditional Jacobean play is daring, but director Peter Darney somehow makes it work. The production gives women the opportunity to take on the stronger roles rarely written for them in the theatre of the period, and the combination of this with the steampunk theme provides a fresh update to an already very well-known play.
The Revenger’s Tragedy is playing at the Rose Playhouse until 27 March. For more information and tickets, see the Rose Playhouse website.