Exeter’s chapel of dark wood and burnished gold is the perfect setting for The Revenger’s Tragedy, Middleton’s dark and glittering drama. Amongst the polished pews, echoing tiled floors and low hanging candelabras, the cast play out a tale of lust and revenge.
Vindice, a brooding, troubled young nobleman, played with arresting intensity by Amyas Bale, is intent on getting revenge for the murder of his betrothed by the Duke. With the help of his brother he disguises himself and enters into the service of the Duke’s eldest son, Lussurioso, and is forced to try to seduce his own sister on his new master’s behalf. Meanwhile, the Duchess is plotting her own revenge against her husband, after he fails to defend her youngest son who is on trial for rape. She joins with the Duke’s bastard son, Spurio, for a lust-filled, semi-incestuous double revenge that plays its part in the Duke’s eventual, grim downfall.
From the very beginning, this production draws you in with its cast of poised and despicable characters; the first tableau is a useful reference for the later treacheries and entanglements, and each person is well characterised and defined – the louche Spurio playing with his yo-yo, the sexualised and prowling duchess. The trial scene works particularly well in this setting, with the audience suddenly becoming complicit in the judgement of the gangly, unrepentant youth as the Duke and judge move in their midst. The use of props is limited, apart from the yoyo, the skull in the first scene stands out and recalls Hamlet – but no Hamlet ever kissed Yorick on the lips.
The poetry is performed well, but occasionally in moments of greatest emotion the words can be lost in the echoing acoustics. Mostly, though, this echoing quality only adds to the powerful contrast between speech and silence, and the actors use it to their advantage.
Whilst the chapel setting gives the production the antique splendour of an old Italian court, the costumes and music set it in a slick, modernised world; the dark suits and plain dresses will give it a sleekness that suits the wiley double-dealing of its characters. As Piato, the disguised Vindice, Bale puts on an American accent that is reminiscent of American gangsters and adds another layer of cultural references to the production. Modern music is blasted from the pulpit at the beginning of scenes, almost seeming to give the characters their own theme tunes. It is well chosen, but sometimes it feels almost too recognisable and can distract from the entrances of the characters.
With uplighting promised and a chiaroscuro death scene, this production should be an intensely dramatic experience. As a modern take that preserves its rich roots, this is not one to miss, even just as a way to see another college!
The Revenger’s Tragedy will be on in Exeter College Chapel, Tuesday 2nd – Saturday 6th of March, 8.15pm