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London Theatre Reviews

Rory Kinnea/PH: Johan Persson

SKULL DOINGS

By DAVID BENEDICT

The Revengers Tragedy ( Thomas Middleton's gory Jacobean story) comes across as an extravagantly over-staged production. It operates on the principle that nothing succeeds like excess.

It's been a while since anybody came up with a murder plot involving a poisoned skull. Yet not only is that the lethal implement in just one of the multiple murders in Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy, it occasions the strongest scene in the National Theatre revival of this typically gory Jacobean story.

Consumed by the desire for revenge for the death of his love, savage anti-hero Vindice (Rory Kinnear) has lured the villainous Duke into an illicit and strategically ill-lit assignation with a young woman. The woman in question is actually the skull of Vindice's beloved, covered in a wig and attached to a puppet-body which he, in every sense, manipulates to his own ends. The scene is crepuscular to the point of being seriously creepy and Kinnear's relishing of his deadly triumph as the louche Duke succumbs is perfectly chilling and thrilling. That, alas, is the end of the good news.

Most of the rest of Melly Still's extravagantly over-staged production appears to operate on the basis that nothing succeeds like excess. That much is clear from her added-on introduction.

Beneath a violent clash between Jacobean-style countertenor singing and the thump and crash of contemporary club sounds, the company disport themselves in dumbshow about the revolving Olivier stage in various aggressive attitudes of sex and violence. But as they hurl themselves about, what comes across most strongly is the effort involved rather than the choreography's expressive intent.

Once the play proper begins, Still ups the pace, pushing her cast through the intricate and increasingly internecine plot in which everyone's extreme ambition, selfishness and murderous behaviour spirals into a bloody body count that would give Tarentino pause.

But not content with Middleton's often blackly comic rancid atmosphere underlined by pungent prose, Still is intent upon exaggeration - nobody walks in this show, they stalk or swagger.

Kinnear, one of the National's most exciting actors who is due to play Hamlet there in 2010, exhibits his customary command of the stage, but even he falls foul of Still's guiding principle. His is the least attitudinous performance but he's up against it from the start in an initial wig so consciously hideous it's hard to take him seriously.

While all this makes the play's activity lucid, it's at the expense of any kind of subtlety. There's no need to try and engage with what Elliot Cowan is trying to do with feckless Lussurioso because Still directs him to masturbate furiously in the shadows during a scene change.

In other words, we're being invited to sit back and watch a directorial box of tricks, all tricked-out up in modish contemporary design. We know the duchess (Adjoa Andoh) is oversexed because unlike everyone else in flashy and trashy contemporary clothes, she teeters about in heels and backless crimson velvet.

The strenuousness of the approach - from the pointlessly whirling revolve stage to the hyperactive video work - ultimately suggests that Still doesn't trust the text. And while it's true The Revenger's Tragedy is not the great play of the era, it has a great deal more to say and more depth - than this production uncovers.