Immersion Theatre have teamed up with new company Theatre of the Broken Dolls to tackle Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy, and they have created a rather mad, absurdist and surreal production of this classically difficult piece - and the result is actually rather enjoyable, if difficult to take at more than face value.
The Revenger's Tragedy is (certainly, from a titular perspective) the purest example of a Jacobean revenge tragedy - highly satirical, cynical of any goodness or happiness, and a bloody mess of murder and lust. Vindici becomes the embodiment of vengeance against the Duke for the death of his love, and in the process either kills or orchestrates the death of the Duke's sons, the Duchess, and the Duke himself - although they all clearly deserve worse, often plotting against each other and engaging in rape and violence without compunction.
In this co-production, the already violent plot has been accentuated further by the addition of surreal absurdist elements - the Duke's three youngest sons are all dressed as clowns, while his heir is a camp, sexually aggressive ballet dancer. Apart from the costume elements, moments of physical theatre and pervasive circus music heighten the sense that this is being played as Theatre of Cruelty, a concept by Antonin Artaud that 'shatters the false reality' of theatre by 'showing the audience a cruel reality they don't wish to see' - it's all very post-modern and artistic.
However, this isn't a concept that overrides the piece - Immersion and Theatre of the Broken Dolls' efforts do go a long way to explaining how a Jacobean revenge tragedy can be relevant to a modern audience: only by showing how absurd the situations are can the true tragedy unfold, the understanding that these characters will all destroy each other and all deserve to be punished - a rather grim view of the rich and powerful, but one that does reflect the current climate well.
So, cheery stuff! Well, that's the beauty of Theatre of Cruelty - it's easy to laugh at the absurdity while accepting the sheer misanthropy (and not necessarily having your mood dragged down by it), and that works well here - the audience giggled its way through successive rapes and murders with all of the grim glee black humour offers, and the production was enjoyable and very watchable. However, I couldn't quite glean the reasoning for two companies to work together to stage the piece - there didn't seem to be an over-riding theme or narrative beyond a succession of grim revenge killings, as the plot only really seems to be there to connect the gruesome images. By dialing up the absurdity, these two young companies may have excised the piece's raison d'etre - it's good fun, but that may be all.
However, is that such a terrible thing? It is good fun - and there are some wonderfully overwrought performances from the cast, all of whom are clearly having a fantastic time. Blocking and physical moves are slick and hang together well, although I would have appreciated better blood, knife and gun effects in a play so rife with them.
The show is now transferring to run at the Hen and Chickens, and I'm sure it will do well - and I would recommend going, as it is well-performed, well-produced, and a gruesomely enjoyable black comedy - just don't expect much depth.