Barbican Theatre, London – until 7 March 2020
Reviewed by Antonia Hebbert
Multiple murders, dubious desires, a head in a box, and misuse of corpses – welcome to Thomas Middleton’s 1606 revenge drama. And benvenuto to this co-production by Cheek by Jowl and Piccolo Theatre of Milan, which is all in Italian (translation by Stefano Massini). It is much less daunting than you might think – the English text is shown in surtitles above the stage, and the stylised design and sharp characterisation make it gripping. As does the somewhat colourful plot…
The central character Vindice (meaning ‘revenger’) wants to avenge the death of his fiance, who was poisoned by an elderly duke. Vindice gets his opening when the duke’s oldest son employs him to help seduce a girl who turns out to be Vindice’s sister. The duke’s numerous sons and stepsons are jostling to succeed him, and his illegitimate son is having an affair with the duchess. Once the duke is dead, the scheming and counterscheming brothers turn on each other, and what with one thing and another, the bodycount by the end is quite high. The characters then all leap back into life to leave the stage as they began – in a dancing procession to a tune that will stick in your head, and also drills home the message that greed, corruption, ambition and revenge itself are a merry-go-round that goes on and on.
As Middleton gave his characters names such as Supervacuo and Ambitioso, it looks very much as though he was sending up revenge drama as well as revelling in its extremes. That’s the way it’s played in this production – it’s bright and funny as well as extremely gory. There is a particularly gruesome murder scene, involving a poisoned death’s head as seduction bait, and an excruciatingly comical tea-party, in which Vindice tests his mother’s moral fibre and much bread-and-jam is eaten. The set (designer Nick Ormerod) is a series of doors (blood red, naturally) which open to reveal huge back projections – a stained glass window, Renaissance paintings, and sometimes black-and-white film footage of the events on stage, which has a rather eerie effect.
It’s played in modern dress – all those brothers are wearing natty suits, but are very distinct characters thanks to their riveting physical acting and Declan Donnellan’s inventive direction. Fausto Cabra plays Vindice with tremendous energy; Pia Lanciotti does a notable double turn as both seductive duchess and the pious mother who is tempted to pimp her own daughter. The Italian is gorgeous to listen to, and quite soon you feel as if you really are understanding the words even if you’re actually reading them above the stage.