"Today, Vindici Returns": Alex Cox's Revengers Tragedy.
University of Warwick
Spiller, Ben. "'Today, Vindici Returns': Alex Cox's Revengers Tragedy." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003): 3.1-14 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-3/spilreve.html>.
Ten years ago, the Duke murdered Vindici's wife on their wedding day. Vindici fled. His family fell into poverty, while the Duke, Duchess and their decadent sons acquired wealth and power.
Today, Vindici returns.
With the help of his brother Carlo, he sets about the destruction of the Duke and his entire clan. But it will not be easy - the Duke is well protected; and his villainous first-born, Lussorioso, is determined to seduce Vindici's sister - Castiza.
When the Duke's youngest son is imprisoned for the rape of a beautiful aristocrat, Imogen, Vindici sees an opportunity to secure his revenge.
So reads the plot synopsis of Alex Cox's new film version of The Revenger's Tragedy, due to receive its London premiere on Valentine's Day of this year (2003).  Perhaps, at first glance, it is an ill-fitting date for the general release of a film based on a play spiced with intrigue, murder, infidelity and incest; but it is entirely appropriate to the play's twisted and dark humour, which often provokes "horrid laughter" in theatre audiences. 
Cox and his casting director have triumphed with a most distinguished cast, including Christopher Eccleston as Vindici (Vindice in the playscript), Derek Jacobi and Diana Quick as the Duke and Duchess, Eddie Izzard as Lussorioso, and Margi Clarke as Hannah (Gratiana in the playscript).  The author of the screenplay, Frank Cottrell Boyce, has reworked the theatricality of the play (probably written by Thomas Middleton)  into a vibrant and urgent modern movie whose futuristic world seems not so far removed from our own.
To relocate the play from a Renaissance Italian court  to Liverpool in 2011, ten years after a comet has hit the earth wiping out the south of England and almost all of France, may appear a radical treatment to say the least. However, far from bastardizing the play and resorting to gimmicks to maintain interest in modern audiences, the film provides a new and original context, an alternative fictional universe whose inhabitants have rediscovered an antiquated language as a means of communication. The Jacobean dialogue, therefore, does not jar against the setting; and the play's excesses of violence, bloodshed and grisly gallows humour retain their early modern tang whilst simultaneously taking place in a time and location far removed from Jacobean England or Renaissance Italy.
- Cox has renamed the play for the title of his film. His choice of Revengers Tragedy, removing the apostrophe of editorial tradition and dropping the definite article, offers audiences the expectation of a number of revenge plots, which the play indeed incorporates in its blood-drenched narrative. In his Production Notes, Cox coins the phrase "apocalyptic apostrophe" to point to the unhelpfulness of the title of the play when searching for finance:
There are a lot of films about revenge, which is - like violence, sport and sex - culturally quite popular [ ] the word 'tragedy' was viewed as something of a downer. "If it's funny, why is it a tragedy?" At the same time I was involved in a double linguistic struggle since one of our most vehement supporters, production manager Julia Valentine, was determined to place the apostrophe either before or after the 's' in Revengers, and I wanted to leave it out - as on the original 1607 title page - since there are in the story multiple revengers. 
Cox's observation that the title is somewhat misleading points to the anonymous playwright's experiment with dramatic genre. The title of Shakespeare's anti-Romantic Troilus and Cressida (probably first performed in 1603, a few years before The Revenger's Tragedy) seems to promise a story of a famous love affair between two famous mythical figures (especially since Romeo and Juliet lived up to such a promise); but both Shakespeare and the author of The Revenger's Tragedy seem to have played with the expectations of their audiences by giving their plays somewhat misleading titles. However, it is still possible to view the play as Vindice's personal tragedy, as he continues to grieve for Gloriana, becomes disillusioned by his mother (when she agrees to sell his sister to Lussorioso), and loses his own life shortly after achieving revenge. 
The often-shocking dark humour of the play is brought to the fore in the film. Indeed, Cottrell Boyce and Cox often capitalize and elaborate on it. In a scene near the opening of the film, Eccleston's Vindici attempts to entertain a group of old women, who are attending to bones and skulls in an underground vault, by playing the role of ventriloquist and using the skull of Gloriana as his dummy:
4B. Int Catacombs Day
VINDICI looks up from his reverie and sees that some of the OLD WOMEN are staring at him.
VINDICI points the SKULL at them and uses it as a ventriloquist's dummy, throwing his voice into it and waggling it about to make it look as though they're talking.
It's true. Old bones don't lie.
They lie in the grave.
When they are at peace they do.
But these old bones will have no peace
Until they have - Revenge!
CUT TO TITLE:
REVENGERS TRAGEDY 
This short scene takes place after Vindici's wedding reception, shown in flashback, which abruptly ends as Gloriana sips from a glass of poisoned champagne. The slow tempo of the music on the soundtrack as Gloriana and Vindici dance together is moving, and provides a sense of Vindici's acute sorrow, which is epitomized as tears fill his eyes shortly before the flashback as he gazes at the skull.  After such an emotional moment and the subsequent flashback, we are presented with some humour, albeit dark and unsettling, as Gloriana is reduced to a theatrical prop to entertain his audience of old women. Vindici later reprises his role as ventriloquist, as he prepares Gloriana's skull for the Duke:
See, ladies, with false forms
You deceive the men but cannot deceive worms.
CASTIZA shrinks away. VINDICI pulls out a medicine bottle from one of the shopping bags and starts to pour its contents onto the skull's teeth. These hiss and steam as the liquid makes contact.
The SKULL sings by ventriloquism -
Up and down, up and down, till they're clean
What is it?
He ventriloquises a scream of fright from the SKULL. 
Other moments of unnerving humour are plenteous. Duke Tourner's five sons travel in a family limousine, in which there is very little room.  They "keep pushing and elbowing each other, trying to get comfortable."  The interior shot of the limo is developed into a comic leitmotif as the backseat becomes more spacious as the brothers become fewer. Towards the end of the film, Lussorioso has the backseat entirely to himself; Cotterell Boyce entitles the scene "Lussorioso's Limo" and describes the young upstart as "luxuriating" now that he is alone at last. In the same scene, Vindici joins him:
Thy name, I have forgot it.
Vindici, my lord.
'Tis a good name, that.
Ay, a revenger.
It does betoken courage; thou shouldst be valiant
And kill thine enemies.
That's my hope, my lord.
LUSSORIOSO grins at him. 
An unscripted moment then takes place as Vindici gives a knowing look directly at the camera. The audience is complicit in his plans and can enjoy sharing an intimate moment with him as Lussorioso grins at he who will shortly kill him.
Another memorable comic moment takes place as the Duke prepares himself to enjoy a prostitute whom Vindici has promised to pimp for him:
70. Int Duke's Bedroom Evening
The DUKE is trying to put on a rather snazzy shirt. He admires himself in his full length mirror and does a fairly stable samba. He adores himself. 
So far in the film, the Duke has been something of a chilling character, an inhuman figure of authority who hides behind blacked-out limo windows and wears sunshades and cosmetics. Here, he is entirely accessible, perhaps even a little vulnerable, as audiences are invited to see him in a most personal situation. He is laughable and pathetic as a tired-out peacock, past his prime, but looking forward to his latest (and last!) rendez-vous; he is unknowingly preparing for his death as, simultaneously in cross-cutting shots, Vindici brushes poison onto the teeth of Gloriana's skull, ready for the Duke's lips to kiss it. Wacky sound effects accompany each of the Duke's movements, which adds to the comedy of the short yet significant scene.
Further to the recurring interior shot of the Tourner brothers' limo, another comic leitmotif is developed in the film. This is not a particular shot like the previous example, but a prop: a gun owned by Castiza, who works as the glamorous assistant in Hippolito's knife-throwing act. The gun is introduced early in the film:
12. Ext Car Park Night
CARLO is outside his little portakabin. He looks up as CASTIZA, the girl from the knife act, approaches.
CASTIZA pulls a gun and points it at him. He looks momentarily alarmed. She trains the gun on his head, pulls the trigger but it produces only a little flag with the word "Bang!" written on it. CARLO fakes a head wound and she hugs him better. They laugh.
She is, in fact, his sister. He hands her a Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. 
The gun is a tacky comic prop, used by Castiza to play a trick on her brother. It is an inoffensive "weapon," presumably taken from some props basket belonging to Hippolito the side-show entertainer. However, the gun returns in the final scene of the film, this time with a more sinister comic edge to it. After Vindici has confessed to the Lord Antonio (now Duke) that it was he who killed the former Duke, and Antonio is concerned that he could be the next victim, Vindici attempts to defend himself against the Lord's "phalanx of armed cops":
There is no way out.
CARLO grins at DUKE ANTONIO.
VINDICI makes ready with the pistol.
We die after a nest of Dukes.
VINDICI pulls the trigger.
Instead of a bullet, out pops the little flag with the word "Bang!" written on it.
VINDICI curses, looks at CARLO.
There's a hail of bullets and the screen goes black. 
Although a harmless toy used to provide a cheap joke earlier on in the film, the fake gun proves to be Vindici's downfall. Here, as in the other examples discussed above, there is a mixture of comedy and darkness. The ventriloquist's act turns an intensely emotional moment, prompted by a sad memory, into a vaudeville sideshow; the Tourner brothers' comic fight for space in the limo mirrors their vicious campaign to be rid of each other; the Duke's absurdly comic preparation in front of his mirror is prompted by his desire to fuck a prostitute, and it takes place shortly before his murder; and the cheap-gag comedy gun that Castiza uses innocently to play a joke on her brother proves to effectively destroy Vindici, her other brother.
Further to the complex dark comedy, the film also taps into the spectacle of death and gore that is present in, or at least is offered for performance by, the playscript. The flashback near the start of the film, to the romantic wedding celebrations of Vindici and Gloriana (as mentioned above),  is later revisited as if in Vindici's memory. It develops into a massacre:
PICK UP ON GLORIANA AND VINDICI:
with their glasses raised high for a toast. GLORIANA drinks hers off.
VINDICI goes to do the same, but surreptitiously hands his to his little sister, CASTIZA.
Suddenly a terrible thing happens. GLORIANA keels over, the glass falling from her hand and shattering on the floor. She is screaming and - horribly - spitting blood. Others too are screaming and spitting.
OTHER PEOPLE scream and try to spit out the wine.
VINDICI's first act is to spin around and knock the wine glass from his sister's hands. Then he goes to help GLORIANA.
CASTIZA is stunned. All around her people are falling over, clutching their stomachs, spitting and retching.
She looks up and sees the mysterious FIGURE we saw earlier, summoning his WAITERS. They move in, thuggish and efficient, and begin to loot the guests of their jewlry [sic.], bags and so on. 
In the third and final flashback to the wedding celebrations/massacre, the true identities of the "cloaked man" and his "thuggish and efficient" waiters are revealed:
In the front of the shot, with his back to us, is the Mysterious Figure with the tray of drinks.
The CAMERA comes round to the face of the Mysterious Figure and we see that it is the DUKE -
[ ] PICK UP ON
The body of GLORIANA, a few moments later, spreadeagled on the floor and outlined in chalk. Screams and lamentations fill the air.
Behind her we notice a sign - CATERING BY DUKE & SONS. 
Audiences are reminded of the horror created by the Duke and his clan, that Vindici described briefly earlier:
She, when she was dressed in flesh,
The old Duke poison'd,
Because that she would not consent
Unto his lust. 
The final marquee scene makes graphically visual and therefore more terrible the consequences of the Duke's murderous design that was prompted by Gloriana's refusal to satisfy his over-indulgent sexual appetite.
Imogen's suicide, which she performs in response to having been raped by Junior (the Duke's youngest son), takes on a special significance in Cox's film. Her dead body, carefully positioned on an open coffin and immaculately preserved, is broadcast live from the home of Lord Antonio (her husband) and her face appears on almost every wall in Liverpool in the form of posters and home-made banners. This is an alternative spectacle of death, far from gore and nightmarish spectacle. Imogen's iconic status as an upholder of virtue, with members of the public leaving bouquets of flowers and cuddly toys on the steps leading up to Lord Antonio's mansion, is strongly reminiscent of the public display of grief after Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash in 1997:
Behold, my lords,
A sight that strikes man out of me.
He opens a door and shows them [a group of reporters] into a room where the body of IMOGEN is laid out like Evita. Lillies, teddy bears, photographs, prayers.
I mark'd not this before.
A prayer book the pillow to her cheek,
This was her rich confection, and another
Plac'd in her right hand, with a leaf tuck'd up,
Pointing to these words:
"Better to die virtuous than live dishonoured." 
Imogen's chosen words are met with general approval as first the News Crew breaks into applause, followed by people in the street watching the broadcast on a large screen. The applause is "like a wave that has rolled out of Antontio's house and into the streets." 
The beautiful dead body of Imogen is counterpointed by the Duke's rotting corpse, which is discovered by the least suspecting person:
91. Ext Antonio's House Day
The flowers and teddy bears left in tribute to IMOGEN are still there.
A busload of SCHOOL CHILDREN has just arrived. Each CHILD is carrying a teddy bear or flowers. They pour off the bus and lay their gifts with those that have gone before.
The camera moves along the line of teddy bears - each one staring at us blankly.
Oh well. And murder will peep out.
Suddenly the camera comes to rest on one face that's not the face of a teddy bear. It's the murdered DUKE, staring out from the soft toys.
A CHILD screams. 
The discovery is an unwelcome shock, not only because a child finds it, but also because it is hidden amongst the tributes to Imogen, a virginal martyr. The Duke's face is graphically shown on screen, purple and rotting as it stares directly at the camera so audiences share the child's trauma. Two reactions to death are offered in the above scene: the serenity of a dead virgin prompts children to make a pilgrimage to her house and lay gifts; and the decaying body of a lecherous old man causes a child to scream.
Dark comedy and the human fascination with death and decay are two of the three main preoccupations of the play and Cox's film, the third being violence as a means of survival in a cut-throat society. The two opening scenes of the film establish a violent world in which human life appears to be valued very little:
1. Ext Deserted Street Day
Pan from a sign saying, LIVERPOOL - DRIVE WITH CARE, to a bus, shot full of bullet holes. The driver is dead. The bus rolls into a burned-out car and stops.
2. Int Bus Day
Dead bodies. Flies buzz around. A mobile rings. VINDICI appears from under the pile of corpses. The only survivor of the massacre. 
The pile of dead bodies strangely pre-empts, or recalls, the massacre at the wedding of Vindici and Gloriana,  and Vindici's appearance from beneath the corpses prefigures the discovery of the dead Duke hidden in a mass of flowers and toys. Vindici is returning home to a world of threat and violence, which becomes personal in the following scene when he is led into a trap by a gang of young thugs. However, he knows how to protect himself:
FIREWORK feints, makes as if to hit VINDICI. At the same moment, one of the big THUGS makes a grab for him.
Before either he or the audience sees what is happening, FIREWORK is flattened against a poster of the DUKE. The big THUG's arm is broken. The biggest THUG of all makes a rush at VINDICI and is immediately flattened.
There is a sickening sound of bones snapping as VINDICI breaks another thug's leg. Another THUG dives in and is equally devastated. The other TWO THUGS run away.
Throughout it all, VINDICI is as impassive and uninvolved as if he were driving a tractor.
FIVE THUGS now lie groaning on the ground. The FIREWORK is screaming with pain. VINDICI looks almost pityingly at him. He makes a move towards him but FIREWORK shuffles backwards, screaming some more. 
Cottrell Boyce and Cox have expanded on the play's visual aspects of violence in the first sequence of the film (before the opening credits begin), and have created a powerful and arresting impression of the kind of world that Vindici is about to enter. From this moment onwards, audiences are never in doubt that Cox's Liverpool of 2011 is an uninviting, threatening place where physical violence is a necessary means to protect the self.
Even Hippolito's sideshow brings out a violent streak in the young entertainer as he hurls his daggers at Castiza. The court masque, performed in the final scene of the play, is reworked in the film as one of Hippolito's knife-throwing acts carried out in a seedy night club. Castiza takes to the floor and asks, "A volunteer. Who'll be our volunteer?"  and invites Lussorioso to take his place on the revolving wheel. A crash of thunder and lightning short-circuits the club and, in the darkness, Vindici stabs the unsuspecting volunteer with a stage knife, shortly followed by another blow with his own dagger. In this, the penultimate act of violence in the film,  entertainment is employed as a weapon to exact revenge, much in the same vein as Vindice uses the "masque of revengers" and "the revengers dance" in the playscript to carry out his revenge.  The thunder and lightning at this point in the film is akin to the stage direction "It thunders" in the play. Both in the film and in the play, such heavenly violence is caused by a comet hurtling towards the earth. Cottrell Boyce's decision to set his screenplay in the aftermath of destruction caused by a comet makes sense of, and makes more credible, the fear of comets towards the end of the play.
At a time when we are subjected to the spectacle of death and violence daily in newspaper articles and on television screens, and dead bodies are on display in a London art gallery for all to experience,  there is space in our cultural climate for a film version of The Revenger's Tragedy. By drawing on the obsessions of dark humour, death, gory spectacle, and violence at work in our own culture and in that belonging to the playwright who wrote the play, Cox has forged a liaison between a Jacobean sensibility and one of today. Perhaps the Jacobeans are not so far away from us as we might think. The play's Vindice, or the film's Vindici, is indeed returning to us today.
1. Cox has directed a considerable number of feature films, including Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, Walker, Highway Patrolman, and Three Businessmen. He has acted in Mexican films and was for several years the presenter of the BBC2 film programme, Moviedrome. Revengers Tragedy is his first British feature film. I wish to express my thanks to him for giving me the opportunity to experience the film on 29 November 2002 in his editing suite at the offices of Exterminating Angel in Liverpool.
2. See Nicholas Brooke, Horrid Laughter in Jacobean Tragedy (London: Open Books, 1979) for a full discussion of the relationship between tragedy and humour in the Jacobean theatre.
3. I do not wish to relegate the rest of the cast and the production team in any way, as each member is vital to the film's great power and energy. However, for the sake of space and clarity in the article, I must list them here in a footnote. The cast: Justin Salinger as Ambitioso; Marc Warren as Supervacuo; Carla Henry as Castiza; Andrew Schofield as Carlo; Antony Booth as Lord Antonio; and Sophie Dahl as Imogen. The producers: Margaret Matheson of Bard Entertainments; and Tod Davies of Exterminating Angel.
4. Cottrell Boyce is confident in his assertion that Middleton was the author of the play, although academics and artists since the first publication of the script in 1607 have variously argued for Middleton, Cyril Tourner and John Webster. Brian Gibbons, in his New Mermaids edition of the play (London: A & C Black, 1991), discusses the contentious authorship (ix-x) and, as he can draw no definite conclusion, prefers to credit no one particular playwright. He goes on to suggest that "there is always the possibility that he [the author] had a reason for remaining anonymous" (x). The Swan Theatre Plays edition of the script, published to coincide with the Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1988, is based on R. A. Foakes' Revels Plays edition (London: Methuen, 1966), and claims that Tourner is the most likely author.
5. More accurately, a Jacobean version of an Italian Renaissance court.
6. Cox's Production Notes, 5. The Notes were kindly sent to me by Moyra Lock of Pathé Films.
7. In the film, Vindici's mother, played by Margi Clarke, later asks her son and daughter for forgiveness. In the cut-throat worlds of the play and the film, it would be convenient to play her repentance as an empty gesture; but Cox's brave directorial decision to take the scene at face value and play it as a genuine plea for absolution gives a brief glimpse of hope that no other moment in the play or film offers.
8. Revengers Tragedy screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Scene 4B, p. 4. Pathé Films generously supplied me with a copy of the unpublished screenplay.
9. The screenplay does not specify that Vindici cries; it was a spontaneous reaction of Eccleston when the scene was shot. Such immediacy and unpredictability characterized the actor's performance of the title role in Hamlet, directed by Ian Brown at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, October to November 2002. I saw three performances of the production and Eccleston delivered a different yet fresh and insightful performance, particularly of the soliloquies, each time. He has an instinctive and impulsive approach, which ensures that every performance is unique.
10. Screenplay, Scene 69B, p. 60.
11. The Duke of the play is renamed Duke Tourner in the film, a knowing reference of Cottrell Boyce to a contender for the authorship of the play (see footnote 4 above).
12. Screenplay, Scene 7, p. 5.
13. Screenplay, Scene 88, p. 72.
14. Screenplay, Scene 70, p. 61.
15. Screenplay, Scene 12, p. 8.
16. Screenplay, Scene 101, p. 89.
17. Screenplay, Scene 4F, pp. 3 - 4.
18. Screenplay, Scene 31F, pp. 20.
19. Screenplay, Scene 46F, p. 41.
20. Screenplay, Scene 4A, p. 4.
21. Screenplay, Scene 59, pp. 49 - 50.
22. Screenplay, Scene 60, p. 50.
23. Screenplay, Scene 91, p. 75.
24. Screenplay, Scenes 1 and 2, p. 1.
25. As audiences are unaware at this point of the mass slaughter at the wedding reception, it would make sense to claim that the busload of corpses pre-empts it. However, as audiences will later discover that Gloriana and her wedding party guests were murdered several years earlier, it makes equal sense to say that the opening spectacle of the film recalls that of the earlier doomed festivity.
26. Screenplay, Scene 3, pp. 1 - 2.
27. Screenplay, Scene 98, p. 83.
28. The last violent act is Vindici's death at the hands of Antonio's bodyguards.
29. See The Revenger's Tragedy, V.3.
30. Professor Gunter von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibition at the Atlantis Gallery, Brick Lane, London, 23 March 2002 to 9 February 2003.
- Brooke, Nicholas. Horrid Laughter in Jacobean Tragedy. London: Open Books, 1979.
- Cox, Alex. Revengers Tragedy. 2002.
- Middleton, Thomas (?). The Revenger's Tragedy. Ed. Brian Gibbons. London: A & C Black, 1991.
- Tourneur, Cyril (?). The Revenger's Tragedy. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Methuen, 1966.
- ----. The Revenger's Tragedy. Ed. Simon Trussler. London: Royal Shakespeare Company and Methuen, 1987.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).