Review of Antonio’s Revenge, Middle Temple Hall, Sunday 13 March 2011
John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge is a decidedly odd play. In the first place, it is the sequel to a successful comedy, Antonio and Mellida. At the end of the first play, we assume that the happy couple are off to live happily ever after, but we are quickly disabused of this impression by the glum tone of the sequel’s prologue, and by the appearance of the father of the bride, Piero, ‘smear’d in blood’, as the stage direction puts it. So far, so peculiar. But perhaps odder is the approach taken in Antonio’s Revenge – the play contains a good number of jokes, and a good deal of grim humour, and its tone seesaws from high tragedy, to satire, to broad comedy. In addition, the play appears to either echo or foreshadow Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the hero has lost his father and worries about his mother’s relationship with a new suitor; his father’s ghost appears, demanding revenge; he has a problematic relationship with his lover; and he repeatedly questions his place in the world and the greater universe. Both plays were written around 1600, and no-one has quite settled the question of which play came first – is Marston imitating Shakespeare, or is Shakespeare imitating Marston?
Antonio and Mellida and Antonio’s Revenge confused T.S. Eliot to such an extent that he suggested that they ‘give the effect of work done by a man who was so exasperated by having to write in a form which he despised that he deliberately wrote worse than he could have written, in order to relieve his feelings’. Although we are perhaps more attuned to the combination of comedy and tragedy than Eliot – who elsewhere writes with great insight about seventeenth-century drama – Marston’s plays continue to puzzle us, and they are not revived as frequently as they deserve. Part of the problem is the fact that they were first performed by a company of boy actors, the Children of Paul’s. Antonio’s Revenge repeatedly draws attention to this fact: for instance, a character describes himself as impersonating his own emotions, ‘Like to some boy that acts a tragedy’. The Antonio plays were among the first to be performed by the Children of Paul’s when they reopened after a long hiatus in the 1590s, and they seem to be especially self-conscious about the composition of the company. It has therefore been difficult for critics and producers alike to know whether the Antonio plays are only effective when performed by boy actors, and whether Antonio’s Revenge is ‘merely’ ironic – a debased imitation of a play like Hamlet rather than an artistic creation in its own right.
For all of these reasons, it was exciting to discover that Perry Mills’ next production with Edward’s Boys was to be Antonio’s Revenge. I was lucky enough to see the performance at the Middle Temple, where Marston himself studied law in the 1590s. I had previously seen a staged reading of the play with an adult cast, as part of Globe Education’s ‘Read Not Dead’ programme; this performance was highly successful, so I was particularly interested to see what effects the performance by K.E.S. might have.
A nod to Marston’s self-consciousness about theatricality was evident from the start, as all the actors wore an identical basic costume: grey boiler-suits over school shirt and tie. These were accompanied periodically by more individualised pieces of costume, such as the wigs and skirts worn by Harry Bowen as Mellida and Alex Lucas as Maria, Antonio’s mother, or the clown’s nose worn by George Matts’s Antonio when he disguises himself as a fool in Act 4. The dominant colour, however, was grey, the grey of the boiler-suits matching a grey raised stage in the centre of the room. The subdued colour made the occasional splashes of red blood stand out all the more, and it also had the effect of drawing attention to Marston’s vivid, often outrageous, language. Marston’s language is notoriously tricky – for instance, the Prologue begins with the lines ‘The rawish dank of clumsy winter ramps / The fluent summer’s vein; and drizzling sleet / Chilleth the wan bleak check of the numb’d earth’ – and it was spoken with exceptional clarity by all members of the cast. The aural quality of the production was also strong in other respects. Shadowy figures hung around the edges of the playing space, contributing periodic shouts and curses, and adding to the intensity of the atmosphere in the Hall. Marston was interested in music, which features prominently in all of his plays, and K.E.S. did him proud in this respect, with some inventive use of song and some extremely strong singing.
Some performances stood out. The most challenging roles of the play, for different reasons, are those of Antonio, the tyrant Piero, and the foolish courtier Sir Geoffrey Balurdo. As Antonio, George Matts negotiated with ease both the shifting emotions of the bereaved son turned revenger – his interactions with Dominik Kurzeja’s Ghost were especially powerful – and the demanding soliloquies, one of which is required to be delivered in part while the actor lies on his back. Jeremy Franklin’s Piero was splendidly histrionic, the actor clearly enjoying the character’s self-conscious villainy, and forming a darkly amusing double-act with Oscar Lawrence’s Strotzo. Joshua Danks-Smith handled Balurdo’s comic set-pieces neatly, such as the moment when he is required to enter with a false beard only half-attached; he was also thoroughly convincing in the character’s shift from fool to revenger in the play’s final stages.
Particular sequences also left a strong impression. A stage direction requires the body of Feliche ‘stabb’d thick with wounds’ to appear ‘hung up’ in the play’s second scene; in the K.E.S. production it appeared, abruptly, in the Hall’s gallery, and remained there, a lingering, grisly presence. A more tender note was struck in the exchange between Antonio and the imprisoned Mellida, her dungeon represented by a box with a barred window, which limited the lovers’ physical contact to fleeting touches of hands or lips on hand. Equally intimate, but far more disturbing, was the scene in which Antonio revenges himself on Piero by killing his small son, Julio. The scene is disturbing to read, featuring as it does the death of a child at the hands of a young man who is barely more than a child himself, and who has to force himself to privilege revenge over affection. In performance it became still more troubling. George Hodson’s Julio was almost dwarfed by Matts’s Antonio and Kurzeja’s shrieking Ghost, making the power imbalance between adult and child characters painfully apparent yet still retaining the horror of a boy actor’s violence against another child. After his death, Julio joined the Ghost, reminding the audience of the extent to which this play is based on the relationships between fathers and sons. This dynamic was also highlighted in the play’s bloody finale, in which Piero’s tongue is cut out before the dismembered limbs of Julio are displayed to him. Franklin, playing Piero, was required to respond to the death of his son through facial expression and gesture alone, a difficult task which he achieved with remarkable ease.
Towards the end of the fourth act of Antonio’s Revenge, as the play hurtles towards its conclusion, the bereaved father Pandulpho declares,
Why, all this while I ha’ but play’d a part,
Like to some boy that acts a tragedy,
Speaks burly words and raves out passion;
But when he thinks upon his infant weakness,
He droops his eye.
Marston intended his words to call attention to the paradoxical strength of his own boy actors’ ability to perform tragedy well. On a cold March night in one of his old haunts, he would not have been disappointed.
Dr Lucy Munro
University of Keele