Pros: Strong performances, inventive deaths and an interesting take on the play’s themes.
Cons: The narrative is muddled and there’s some disparity in style.
Last night was my first visit to the Rose Playhouse and it came with a light warning: ‘Wrap up warmly!’. This is a sound piece of advice as, although this venue seems to be inside (four walls, a ceiling), it certainly has the feeling of an open air theatre. So I would repeat this caution to anyone venturing to Bankside, but by no means should this put you off! The historic ruins that form the auditorium are well worth it and there was more than enough heat on stage to keep the audience warmed through.
My first experience of the Rose was to be a production of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean classic The Revenger’s Tragedy. The play focuses on the ugly, animalistic side of human nature and how these urges can cause chaos if they’re allowed to go unchecked. We follow Vindicie, our vindictive protagonist, in her quest to avenge the death of her beloved, who was poisoned by the scurrilous duchess. The Duchess and other members of the royal family are firmly within Vindicie’s crosshairs and it is with disguise and cunning that she begins her ruthless pursuit.
This production is by no means a standard re-telling of the original, however. With steampunk costume design, gender-swapped casting and re-invention of some of the original Jacobean language, this production aims to put an entirely different spin on the bloodthirsty play. And it is bloody. Very bloody. The death scenes in this production are truly inventive, and the ones with the Black and Decker drill are certainly the most memorable. In fact, I think the only thing that stands out more than these murderous scenes are the various simulated sex acts and the large amount of flesh on show. (It does tend to catch your eye!) Gender and sexuality are brought to the forefront in this production. Male go-go dancers and sexually empowered women highlight the double standards in traditional gender roles and the way in which these lines are, perhaps, becoming more blurred. The soundtrack fits perfectly with the theme of female empowerment. The first song I heard when stepping into the auditorium was 212 by Azealia Banks, a rap song that is as aggressive and sexually explicit as any man’s offering from the same genre. The staging is, by necessity, minimalist. There is very little space to work with, but the small amount of props and quite large cast work well in what could be quite an awkward space.
This production makes a bold statement about sexuality and certainly explores some interesting ideas. But through gyrating men in Lycra it is sometimes hard to keep track of the original story. The plot is occasionally pushed to the back in favour of a good death scene and with a story as potentially complex as The Revenger’s Tragedy, this can make things difficult for the audience. The gender-swapped casting is definitely bold, but it also left me a bit confused. I struggled to come away with any conclusion other than that women can be just as grotesque, lustful and bloodthirsty as men. But perhaps that is the point. I guess we can all be equal in all ways, good and bad.
Having said this, there were many strong performances and the whole production left me pondering my own views about its themes. Although a little confused in plot and theme, this is a bold production and an enjoyable night out at the theatre.
Author: Thomas Middleton
Director: Peter Darney
Producer: Em-Lou Productions
Box Office: 020 7261 9565
Booking Link: http://www.rosetheatre.org.uk/events/the-revengers-tragedy-by-thomas-middleton-2016-03-12/
Booking Until: 27 March 2016