Cross-gender and gender blind casting goes a long way to fight the pervasive gender inequality in theatre. With male characters dominating Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, these casting approaches, along with all-female productions, are the only way to work towards achieving equality in classical productions. At the Rose Playhouse, director Peter Darney of Em-Lou Productions takes the absurd, vengeful world of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy and completely swaps genders. By endowing women with the stereotypically masculine, obsessive fighting and fucking that occurs in the play, the heightened ridiculousness draws attention to our ingrained perceptions of how men and women should and shouldn’t behave. Simultaneously freeing and unsettling, Darney’s production draws attention to imbedded patriarchal expectations of women as caregivers by turning them into ruthless, vengeful machines in a strikingly designed, competently performed production.
With a black and red colour scheme inspired by the dark pool preserving the Rose’s archeological remains and the red rope lights that outline its foundations, Darney and designer Nicki Martin Harper have imagined the play’s action taking place in a goth/steampunk/BDSM world. Surprisingly, it works incredibly well. The sexually suggestive, alternative look suits these characters driven by sex and violence to seek revenge. There’s a ruthless, devil-may-care mood, and the striking costumes draw attention away from the inability to have much set on the small stage.
Darney, of Fucking Men fame, doesn’t shy away from sex and violence. From the start, we see the crime that sparks the cycle of revenge: Junior (Camilla Watson) rapes Lord Antonio (Kit Heanue) with the hell of her stiletto. Staged at the back of the site, the audience is spared any gory detail (though there is plenty to come), but it’s a hell of an image to start with. The murders are similarly graphic, with an electric drill, daggers and poison all wielded with ferocious venom and copious amounts of fake blood. Most of the fights are rather clumsy and simple; a fight choreographer could increase the violence tenfold. There is also plenty of seduction and revealing costume, though some of the 15-strong cast disappointingly resort to playing sexy rather than finding any of their characters’ depth. The script also loses momentum after the first batch of killings and takes some time to pick up again.
Rebecca Tanwen and Allie Croker as evil sisters Ambitioso and Supervacuo give sparky, spunky (albeit posh) performances as they pursue their agenda. More earthy and vindictive are Vindice (a spectacular Annie Nelson) and Hippolita (Brittany Atkins), who have an urban, estate kid urgency and resourcefulness as they go after the Duchess (Deborah Kearne) for previously poisoning Vindice’s father. The rest of the ensemble are generally energetic and confident, handle the text well, and are unafraid to directly address the audience and include them in their bawdiness. Darney and his cast punch the sexual innuendos in the script, adding comedy that, in turn, makes the violence all the more shocking.
With a cast of beautiful people, The Revenger’s Tragedy is visually rich, with an edited storyline that is easy to follow, even to those not particularly familiar with the play. Though some of the performances need developing and the supposedly 90-minute show is actually two hours, it’s an entertaining production that is most valuable for its comment on society’s expectations of women. Seeing an unrestrained depiction of them as selfish seducers and killers is shocking not because of the acts they commit, but that it is women committing them – a sign of ingrained expectations of behaviour that are the root of gender inequality.
Running through 27th March at Rose Playhouse, Bankside.
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