Jerome Monahan looks at a film revival - set in a futuristic Liverpool - of a gruesome Jacobean tragedy
"Let the man who seeks revenge remember to dig two graves."
This Chinese proverb features prominently in the production notes accompanying film director Alex Cox's latest venture - a dystopian, postapocalyptic screen version of Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy. The play, first performed by the King's Men at the Globe between 1605 and 1606, has been shifted to a decaying Liverpool of the near future.
The survivors of a comet collision that has wiped out the rest of Europe speak verse and live lives of casual savagery amid the decaying grandeur of the city's imposing 19th-century public buildings.
Cox suggests that the play's focus on revenge and its invariably futile consequences has taken on extra relevance following September 11 and the ensuing determination of governments seeking pay-back from those they hold responsible. Nor is this the film's only contemporary link. Royal butler Paul Burrell's revelations give this depiction of court intrigue additional resonance.
Indeed, Cox chooses to turn an early victim of the court's violence into a Princess Diana figure. She is Imogen, played by Sophie Dahl (the wife of Tony Booth's Duke Antonio), whose suicide following rape is used to prompt an outpouring of public grief, much to her husband's political advantage.
By now, it should be apparent that this is no conventional rendition of a classic play. But there again, The Revenger's Tragedy is far from being a conventional drama. It was roundly condemned by Victorian critics who felt that its mixture of sadism, sexual excess and sardonic laughter were the signs of a poet in the grip of some "pitiable psychopathic perversion."
Its reappraisal had to wait until the horrors of the 20th century and the taste for absurdist theatre that followed.
Cox's film, when it opens next month with a 15 certificate, should provide a good opportunity for students to broaden their knowledge of Middleton (his Women Beware Women, c 1624, features on AQA's A2 English literature syllabus this year).
The Revenger's Tragedy went down well with students at special screenings during October's National Schools' Film Week, and is likely to become a key way of showing the convolutions and horrors of the genre to students.
For those grappling with Hamlet, perhaps as part of a coursework topic, here is the perfect contrast - a play featuring a character bent on vengeance, with none of the young prince of Denmark's qualms. Middleton's Vindice, performed here with typical intensity by Christopher Eccleston, is in many ways vengeance personified, hell-bent on creating the most exquisite combination of tortures for the Duke who murdered his love, Gloriana. Yet he is no cipher. Cox points out that, in keeping with many real killers (the Washington sniper was still at large when we talked and beginning to taunt the police), Vindice feels compelled to obtain recognition for his crimes, even to the point of confessing them - "If none disclose 'em, they themselves reveal 'em," he explains. Such self-destructiveness is common in Middleton's world.
The court in which Vindice operates seethes with sexual and political rivalries - rivalries that culminate in a hilarious Dance of Death in the final scene, as one grotesque character after another dispatches his enemies with parodic aplomb.
Cox has assembled a classy cast, including Derek Jacobi as a suitably vampiric Duke and Diana Quick as his sexually voracious wife. Students will recognise many of those involved, including Eddie Izzard as the lustful Lussurioso, Margi Clarke as Vindice's mother, Hannah (Gratiana in the play), and Marc Warren as Supervacuo, the middle one of the Duchess's three vain, idiotic and vicious sons by a previous marriage.
Cox claims to have been a fan of the play since it provided a welcome distraction from the law studies he was half-heartedly pursuing at college.
Nearly 30 years on, he has realised his dream to adapt it for the screen.
In doing so, he has felt obliged to tidy it up to fit the demands of a different medium.
Unlike on the stage, the verse cannot be relied on to tell all - for example, the circumstances just prior to Imogen's rape are depicted in a scene that seems particularly contrived. It is also sad that Vindice's multiple disguises are disposed of. His mother's blindness and his long absence at sea are created to account for her failure to recognise him when he tests the depth of her morality and that of his sister Castiza (powerfully played by Carla Henry). This also deprives us of the delicious lunacy later in the play when, out of disguise, he is commanded to murder Piato, the character he himself played in the earlier Acts: "I'm hired to kill myself."
One thing not to be found in the original is the atomic blast that ends Cox's film. It is a suitably nihilistic outcome for a drama in which there appears no moral core and the dominant philosophy is that "there's nothing sure in mortality but mortality".
This is not the end of the story. The project has, Cox claims, encouraged him to explore Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies. Next up for the screen treatment is likely to be Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy.
The Revenger's Tradegy opens Febuary 14 at the Curzon, Soho, London and around the UK.Additional reading: Rex Gibson, Shakespearean and Jacobean Tragedy (Cambridge University Press pound;7.95)