sun 24/05/2020

The Revenger's Tragedy, Piccolo Teatro di Milano/Cheek by Jowl, Barbican review - fun, but not enough | reviews, news & interviews

The Revenger's Tragedy, Piccolo Teatro di Milano/Cheek by Jowl, Barbican review - fun, but not enough

The Revenger's Tragedy, Piccolo Teatro di Milano/Cheek by Jowl, Barbican review - fun, but not enough

Middleton's decimation of an Italian court needs more satirical thrust

Fausto Cabra as Vindice with his murdered love GlorianaBoth images by MasiarPasquali

Vendetta, morte: what a lark to find those tools of 19th century Italian opera taken back to their mother tongue in a Milanese take on Jacobean so-called tragedy, where the overriding obsession is on mortalità. It would take a composer of savage wit like Gerald Barry to set Middleton's satirical bloody-mindedness to music today.

Vendetta, morte: what a lark to find those tools of 19th century Italian opera taken back to their mother tongue in a Milanese take on Jacobean so-called tragedy, where the overriding obsession is on mortalità. It would take a composer of savage wit like Gerald Barry to set Middleton's satirical bloody-mindedness to music today. With Declan Donnellan directing, though, La tragedia del vendicatore remains too prosaic and half-literal a play. The attribute that's missing from the Italian lexicon here is bravura.

The snazzy Dances of Death towards the beginning and at the end (pictured below) are Donnellan's best idea, strutted and twisted out by allegorical types in sharp suits and cocktail dresses, played out in a line against a row of russet-stained wooden doors which open on church, palace and garden scenes. What happens in between - and it's a bit of a mess, dramatically, in more ways than one - isn't put across with the volume or total confidence you'd expect from Italian actors, refreshing though it is to find a visiting company to the Barbican which doesn't depend upon amplification. Maybe they're used to playing in smaller spaces (is piccolo the clue?)

Fausto Cabra as Vindice, the Revenger, is good but not quite charismatic enough for the puppet-master who gets caught up in his own strings; those monologues to audience need to be delivered with the smiling-disgusted panache of a Richard III. The situations he creates - getting the Duke who poisoned his beloved to kiss the arsenic-covered "lips" of her skull in the promise of an assignation with a country wench, putting the wig of his alter ego "Piato" on the corpse and egging son-and-heir Lussurioso on to witness and participate in vengeance on the wrong object - could be wildly, blackly comic; they're just enough so here to suggest a greater potential in the execution. Scene from The Revenger's TragedyThe delivery, too, isn't done with quite enough relish. Ivan Alovisio as Lussurioso comes closest; the other point of performing interest is actually the only "good" character, Vindice's sister Castiza, as played with compelling force by Marta Malvestiti. Alongside her furious sense of honour and play-acting depravity, Pia Lanciotti as an on-heat Duchess as well as Vindice's and Castiza's simperingly corruptible mother doesn't pull enough focus.

It's not the actors' fault if the play snakes on for way too long after the Duke's murder. The responsibility is Donnellan's to make the episodes vivid - the one with the "wrong" severed head could be a real comic divertissement - and the music's to highlight or spoof the stylised horror; the only times Gianluca Masiti's score does so is in the easy-listening sounds for the assignation with the poisoned skull and, of course, the death-dance routines, the second of which allows the multiple murders to be wound up in double-quick time. Nick Ormerod's design space is helpful to some powerful blocking in which both distance and closeness play a part, but the Renaissance images on the wall behind the doors also soften the blow. Middleton's drama can be way nastier and funnier than this.

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