By Thomas Middleton, or possibly Anonymous?
Directed by Melly Still
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Wednesday 6th August 2008
This was another production in the style of The Man Of Mode last year, a glorious updating of an old play. There was a great deal to enjoy. The set was in three sections on the revolve, with passageways sandwiched between them. This not only allowed for very quick scene changes, but also gave lots of opportunities for characters to lurk in corners to hear and see what’s going on. One of the three sections showed us the poorly furnished house of Vindice and his family – gaps on the walls showed us where the old masters had hung – while the other two represented rooms in the court, one with red plastic seating and pictures on the walls that left little to the imagination, the other more neutral for an assortment of uses.
The opening scene was a montage of the situation at the start of the play. Vindice sits in his room, raging at fate like a depressed teenager, while all around him the court is partying like mad. The duke and duchess appear to be enjoying themselves, but the duke is soon getting a blow job from one of the athletic dancers (female), while the duchess is trying to seduce a surly young man who turns out to be the duke’s illegitimate son Spurio, and not the only member of the family who merits the title ‘bastard’.
The music is pounding, the stage is spinning, and suddenly we see a woman being set upon by several men. One of them rapes her, his buttocks fully displayed, and when that scene comes round again, the woman has been left to sort herself out, clearly distressed, and trying to cover herself up with the tattered remains of her dress. It’s a disturbing scene, and really lets us know about the depravity and corruption in this court.
Now the party’s almost over, but the duke and the other guests are having a final stroll through the night air, still surrounded by the dancers and other courtiers. The revolve stops, to show us Vindice in his room, with long dank hair, scruffy clothes, and bare feet. As he begins his rant against the “Duke: royal lecher”, the characters are obligingly festooned across the stage in front of us. Well, we need no telling that the duke is lecherous, but it is helpful to have these people introduced to us, and the proximity of their depraved actions and Vindice’s condemnation makes his bitterness readily understood.
Mind you, he’s not bitter about the corruption of the government in general, nor does he know of the rape we’ve just seen being committed. His anger is based on an earlier incident when his fiancée Gloriana was murdered by the duke because she wouldn’t let him get his leg over. Vindice has kept her wedding dress, veil and skull as mementos, and takes them out while telling us of his pain at losing such a wonderful woman. The skull was a touch macabre, and we have to gloss over questions about time of death, how the flesh was removed, and even how did he get hold of it, because his brother turns up to offer him a job.
His dream job, in fact. With their father recently dead (Hamlet featured strongly in our list of the plays we were reminded of), the family fell into poverty, so Hippolito, Vindice’s brother, got a job at court and wormed his way into the confidence of the duke’s legitimate, though younger, son and therefore heir (King Lear). This chap, Lussurioso, but I’ll call him Lusty, is a chip off the old block, so naturally he wants a villain to do his dirty work, and he gives Hippolito the task of finding one (Richard III). Of course Hippolito thinks of his brother, and the plot appeals enormously to both of them. It will give Vindice a chance to be at court, in disguise, and find a way to take revenge on the duke.
Meanwhile, the duke’s youngest step-son is being tried for the rape we witnessed earlier. The duke is stern, the wronged noblewoman is present, and her husband speaks eloquently against the criminal. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why the judges won’t pronounce the man guilty and sentence him to death. But then the duchess, mother to the rapist, pleads for his life (Titus Andronicus), his brothers ask for mercy on his behalf, and even the duke’s heir asks his father to reconsider. Despite the guilty party being completely unrepentant, the duke decides to wait a bit before allowing the judges to announce the verdict, and it looks like nepotism has triumphed over justice yet again. Admittedly the culprit is sent to prison to await his fate, but that doesn’t seem like serious punishment in these circumstances.
The play really livens up now with Vindice’s first appearance in disguise, as Piato. Rory Kinnear has taken off his wig, and now appears with shaven head and wearing torn jeans and a shiny bomber jacket. He decides to adopt an accent to hide his identity even more, but don’t ask me which one, I’ve no idea. Lusty sends everyone else packing so he can check out the new boy himself. He likes what he sees, and doesn’t even object to being groped by a commoner, so long as the man will get him what he wants. Turns out that what he wants is Vindice and Hippolito’s virgin sister! This shocks Vindice, naturally, but he plays along with Lusty, and decides to use the opportunity to test his sister and mother’s integrity.
When he turns up at the family home, now togged out in decent gear, his sister doesn’t recognize him. So when he offers her the letter from Lusty, she lets fly with a ferocious punch that floors him completely. She then has a good rant (it’s clearly a family trait), and storms off, leaving her brother to pick himself up, in ecstasy at her reaction. She’s still chaste! Then his mother arrives, and, as agreed with Lusty, Vindice turns his persuasive powers on her, only to find that she is eventually lured by the massive amount of money he can offer her. To his great disappointment, she agrees to work on her daughter, and suggests he tell Lusty that he’ll be very welcome to drop in next time he’s in the neighbourhood. Disaster. Vindice succeeded where he hoped to have failed.
Back at the court, his brother informs him of the scandal of the duchess and Spurio, who have been spotted having illicit nooky. With Lusty about to head off to take advantage of Piato’s good work, Vindice tries to distract him by warning him that Spurio has been seen heading into the duchess’s bedchamber, and Lusty, incensed at this treachery (his conscience is so selective), dashes off to avenge this wrong. Unfortunately, it’s his father in bed with the duchess, not his half-brother, and since his actions look like treason, Lusty himself is sent to prison. Several of the lords come to the king and plead for Lusty’s life, and by now the king has cooled down enough to tell them to have his son set free. However, before this, the two remaining half brothers had been trying their version of mind games on the duke. Someone should have explained to them that in order to play mind games, you have to have a mind. While claiming to want mercy for poor Lusty’s life, they try to emphasize the heinous nature of his crime, and work the old boy into such a lather that he’ll have his son executed immediately. But the duke’s too wily for that. He spots their ploy, and tests them out by declaring that they’ve persuaded him to forget and forgive – his son shall go free. They change course faster than a racing catamaran rounding the marker buoy (the Olympics are on), and urge him to take the seriousness of the offence into account. This he does, and declares that his son will die! He gives them a ring to take to the judges to have them deal with it. So I was a bit concerned when the lords then pleaded for Lusty to be released, that it might be a smidgeon too late.
However, the two ‘clever’ sons are busy scheming to get Lusty bumped off, with the younger of the two planning on promoting himself even further once the first heir is out of the way, by getting rid of the second as well (his brother). They’re so busy with this, in fact, that they get to the prison shortly after Lusty’s been released. When they then tell the officers (they decided to bypass the judges, to avoid the risk of any unnecessary reprieves) that the duke has ordered that their brother be executed straightaway, and with tears in their eyes, it’s perhaps understandable that said officers (none the brightest, maybe, but still), should mistakenly assume that they were to execute the rapist brother. And so they do. Oops. But the brothers have already left, secure in their belief that they’re one step closer to the dukedom.
Meanwhile, Vindice, as Piato, has been hired by the duke himself to find a virgin for him to ravish that night. Vindice meets his brother, and explains the whole plan. They’re in a dark lodge apart from the palace, and here Vindice has arranged for the Duke to come and enjoy himself. However, he has set a trap. He’s made up a woman out of Gloriana’s gown, her skull, and a mask, and plans to work her like a giant puppet to get the duke to kiss her lips, which he smears with poison, the same poison that Gloriana herself was killed with. The duke arrives, and without much ado, starts to fondle the supposed virgin, getting slapped at a couple of times for his trouble. But he soon grabs her face and plants a huge smacker on her lips, only to find he’s been tricked.
The lads now reveal themselves, and taunt him as he’s dying, as well as stabbing him several times just in case. Vindice had also found out that the duchess and Spurio had arranged an assignation in the same lodge, so he intends to torment the duke by showing him his wife’s own infidelity with his bastard son, just to make sure the duke dies unhappy. Such is the nature of the duke’s own villainy, this actually seemed quite reasonable at the time, but do remember children, don’t try this at home. The duchess and Spurio turn up on cue, and start enjoying themselves in various positions – I won’t bore you with all the details – while Vindice and Hippolito hide the duke’s body.
The next scene brings us back to the deceased duke’s stepsons, still happy that they’ve got rid of Lusty, but bickering like mad over whose bright idea it all was. One of the officers brings them the bloody head of their victim, in a bag, and the sight of them pretending sorrow while actually being delighted was a lovely moment. It’s short-lived too, as Lusty strolls past on his way to somewhere else, so they get the first inkling that all has not gone to plan. When they discover their brother’s head in the bag, they’re naturally upset, and one of them carries the head off, stroking it tenderly, a worrying sign.
Lusty has reappeared in the red plastic room, the ‘sex suite’, and is pretty angry with Piato for giving him duff information and getting him into trouble. Actually, he takes it out on Hippolito first, as he was the one who brought Piato to Lusty. When Piato does turn up, Lusty chases him away, and then he orders Hippolito to bring his brother, Vindice, to him, as he wants to get Piato killed, and Vindice is a good prospect to do the murder. This is where things get complicated. (Now they get complicated?) How do they bring Vindice to Lusty without him spotting that Vindice and Piato are one and the same? And how to kill Piato without killing Vindice? It’s a puzzle.
Still, Vindice gives it a go. Dressed more like his former self, with long hair, a cap, and smarter but more sombre clothes, he puts in an appearance as himself, and sulks and scowls his way into Lusty’s favour. Tasked with killing his alter-ego, he hits on the plan of substituting the duke’s body for Piato’s (although the duke has been missed, no one’s found the body yet), and dressing the corpse in Piato’s clothes so that people will think Piato killed the duke and swapped clothes with him to make his escape. But before they do this, the brothers head home to see if they can persuade their mother to be virtuous again.
It’s a funny scene at first, as their mother insists she’s done nothing wrong, only to find herself confronted by the very man who persuaded her to turn bawd in the first place – her own son! There’s eventual repentance and redemption (Hamlet again), and all three are reconciled. After the brothers leave, their sister turns up, with bag packed, ready to surrender her virtue to Lusty’s lasciviousness, as her mother asked. Are we too late? Has the damage already been done? Her mother thinks so, and does her best to persuade her daughter to take the virtuous path again. Fortunately, it’s all a test on the daughter’s part, and she’s always been determined to keep herself chaste. Phew, that’s a relief. Hugs all round for this family.
Back at the palace, the lads drape the dead duke tastefully on a chair, and remove themselves to the background. Lusty soon joins them, and then they pretend to discover Piato, drunk and asleep, and stab him to death, only to discover it’s actually the duke. Naturally Lusty’s keen to distance himself from this killing, so he quickly latches onto the idea that Piato did it, and the whole court is presented with this explanation as a fait accompli.
Now that the duke’s death is known, Lusty becomes the next duke, and with several of the court attendants and nobles becoming unhappy with the depravity and corruption of the court, Vindice and Hippolito have a sizeable team to help them with the final phase of their revenge. For the new duke’s revels, there are to be dancers dressed in masks, and these plotters have all the details of the costumes. The stage is set for a bloody ending.
The new duke is crowned, and then the party begins. A group of dancers come on in strange looking outfits, and in the course of the dance, they draw their swords and kill the new duke and the lords who are with him. When the “real” dancers arrive – these are the other nobles, including the step-brothers – they’re accused of having done the killings, and the actual assassins take the opportunity to kill the rest of the evil bunch there and then. It wasn’t as gory as it might have been, but the body count was higher than an episode of Midsomer Murders. The nobleman whose wife had been raped (she subsequently died) is asked to take over as duke, and then Vindice makes the biggest blunder of all time. He confesses, the silly bugger. Well, he obviously thinks it’s alright now, the bad folk have been killed, and only the good folk are left, but he forgot that the new new duke is an upstanding man, who will have to prosecute murderers regardless of the provocation, or the benefit to himself. And so it turns out. Worse still, Vindice has already named his brother as his accomplice, so both of them are for the chop. Vindice sees the justice in all of this, and goes to his death a contented man; understandably, his brother’s not so happy with this result.
As the bodies are carried back onto the revolve to be tidied away, the stage turns again, and we see the new duke telling Vindice’s mother and sister what’s happened. They’re naturally upset. Meanwhile, as the stage still turns, we see the whores being cleared out of the sex suite, and there’s a general sense of order being restored. It was a lovely way to finish, and we gave the cast a good reception, which they thoroughly deserved.
I added Anonymous as a potential author of this piece as the authorship is in some doubt. Middleton is some people’s choice, but there are other opinions, although the National is content to put Middleton’s name on this production. I couldn’t honestly say from hearing the lines whether Middleton is the man as I don’t know his work very well, but it’s easy to see why it was a popular play in Jacobean England. There’s plenty of talk about sex, lots of references to death, and plenty of killings, which is just what the audiences liked at that time, or so we’re told. It’s noticeable that there’s no actual sex on stage as far as the text is concerned – the rampant activity on show in this production is entirely to get the point across to an audience that’s pretty much seen it all before; a bit like an Andrew Davies adaptation, but much darker. It seemed totally valid to me, and the music fitted in perfectly to this style as well. In fact, I really didn’t notice the music much, that’s how good it was. We had one group to our right doing more traditional music, while on our left were two DJs giving us the loud club sound, which was a brilliant way to represent the depravity of the court. I didn’t actually notice any of the characters snorting a line or dropping a tab, but it wouldn’t have been out of place.
The other thing I noticed early on was that I found it harder to understand these lines. I became aware of how much Shakespeare has influenced our use of language, even today. It just seems to be easier to hear his lines. This dialogue was much harder work.
The many connections we noticed with Shakespeare’s plays were confirmed in the program notes, as Middleton (if indeed the author) was effectively Will’s complementary opposite, writing works such as The Ghost Of Lucrece to echo Shakespeare’s earlier The Rape Of Lucrece. Even the excellent scene where Lusty arranges for Vindice to pimp his own sister has a precursor in The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Ford, disguised as Brook, hires Falstaff to do much the same thing with his own wife. Still, it’s a good scene, and perhaps for once Will found himself wishing he’d written that.
To get back to the production itself, the actors were all excellent, although I must mention Rory Kinnear’s performance. It was superb, and given the close ties between this play and Hamlet, I’m looking forward to seeing his take on that role in a couple of years. (Apparently he’s delaying playing the part as there’s such a glut at the moment, a wise choice.) The whole effect was perfect, and I don’t expect to see a better production of this play ever.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me