Suba Das’s production of The Revenger’s Tragedy starts with a bang and ends with a whimper – and then an extra bang for good measure. It’s not a subtle production, and one can’t help but feel that underneath all of the noise and violence there’s very little substance. For a play full of death, rape and revenge, it’s all rather tedious.
It’s far too loud, almost all of the time, and this makes the convoluted plot even more confusing. In fact, the sound (Edward Lewis) and lighting (Tupac Martir) are just plain bad: not only were the sound levels way too high, but the reverb and recorded lines felt brash – the play is melodramatic enough without disembodied voices repeating “key” phrases. The play opens with an unpleasant soundscape, punctuated by static, for no apparent reason. Rachael A Smith’s set design is attractive, gothic and mysterious, but populated by inexplicable television sets which play little loops of video, close-ups of the actors’ faces, and repeated lines of the script.
Tupac Martir’s lighting design involves bright light on the false courtiers and sudden darkening whenever there’s an aside. Subtle it ain’t, and these dimmings were also frequently out of time. For unfathomable reasons, Martir lights much of the action from the back of the stage, meaning that for a decent portion of the first half the left hand side of the auditorium is blinded by a huge spotlight. The concept (Vindice, the revenger, lights characters as they speak, as if interrogating them or shining light into their darker motives) is briefly clever, but ill-thought-out and incredibly poorly executed. The piece was originally billed as promenade but last-minute changes had to be made for health and safety reasons, turning it into a static piece. I can only hope that this lighting decision was made on the hoof.
The charismatic and vivacious Tom Mothersdale is far and away the best thing about this rather limp production; he channels Vindice’s desire for revenge into an oddly sympathetic anti-hero and plays well off Jack Hardwick as his brother, Hippolito. Mothersdale’s mercurial mood swings could have been handled with a lighter touch (there was A LOT OF SHOUTING), but he was entertaining to watch. None of the women shone, sadly. Sarah Bell was overblown and hysterical as Gratiana (the revenging brothers’ mother), Bridgitta Roy made for a two-dimensional Duchess (although the part, of evil adulteress, is slight) and Jaime Winstone was insipid in the extreme as the sister (Castiza) whose chastity is challenged by the lustful Lussurioso (Nana Amoo-Gottfried, played with wonderfully camp menace). Das has given Vindice a guiding role in the action; he snaps his fingers to change the lighting or pause a character’s speech and waves his arm to draw a curtain, which could have been effective had it be slicker but instead feels unimaginative and trite.
It’s a typically ludicrous plot, involving disguises that wouldn’t fool a child, much pretending and double-dealing, and lots and lots of revenge. The violent scenes (of which there are many) are handled deftly by Das and Fight Director Anthony Middleton. It’s a tough ask to make violence look real – especially when audience and actors are in such close proximity – but the fights looked great, and there was a moment when the whole front row flinched, which I won’t spoil.
The second half, when much of the doing-in gets done, was kind of fun, in a macabre way. It was pretty slick, quick and dispatched everyone who needed dispatching in about half an hour. It’s such a shame that the leaden first half didn’t measure up, and that the sheer ridiculousness of plot and characters seems to have been too much for Das to handle. The play is weighted towards the first half, unfortunately, which is more than twice as long as the second, which means that as a whole it felt both over the top and underplayed.
The Revenger’s Tragedy plays at Hoxton Hall until 10 November. For information and tickets visit the Hoxton Hall website.