Alex Cox's Revengers Tragedy.
Jerome de Groot
University College Dublin

De Groot, Jerome. "Alex Cox's Revengers Tragedy." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.1 (May, 2003): 21.1-4 <URL:

Directed by Alan Cox. With Christopher Eccleston (Vindici), Derek Jacobi (the Duke), Diana Quick (the Duchess), Eddie Izzard (Lussurioso), Alan Schofield (Carlo), Marc Warren (Supervacuo), Justin Salinger (Ambitioso), Fraser Ayres (Spurio), Carla Henry (Castiza), Sophie Dahl (Imogen). Cinematography by Len Gowing. Editing by Ray Fowlis. Production Design by Cecilia Montiel. Costume Design by Monica Aslanian. Produced by Todd Davies and Margaret Matheson. Bard Entertainments, Exterminating Angel Productions and Northcroft Films, 2003.

  1. "Let the Man who seeks Revenge remember to dig two graves," goes the Chinese proverb which provides the epigraph for Alex Cox's weird and wonderful Liverpool-set take on Middleton's 1607 text. Merseyside is fast becoming an alternative space for film directors wishing to update and reconfigure Shakespeare and his contemporaries away from the hegemonic limitations of the capital (think of the brilliant gangland version of King Lear, entitled My Kingdom and starring Richard Harris, also set in the North-West). Cox's film is certainly a long way from RSC or Globe versions of early modern drama. Setting his production in a post-apocalyptic wasteworld in which North and Southern England have fought a terrible war, Cox explores the text in many intriguing ways, delivering a film that reinvents Middleton's play as a "locally based anarchist revenge tragicomedy" (www.revengerstragedy.com). One simple but fundamental decision--not including an apostrophe in the title, thus following the 1607 quarto title-page--opens up Cox's film to an exploration of revenge from the comic (the various designs of the brothers) to the grimly profound (Vindici and his family's bloody and grisly vengeance). This is not the tragedy of one man, but an exploration of the motives for revenge, and an interrogation of the notions of morality and punishment, wrongdoing and destructive attempts at seeking reparation.

  2. The ambitious design pastiches and integrates elements of A Clockwork Orange, Derek Jarman's early films, Velvet Goldmine, glam, Bladerunner, cyberpunk, DIY filmmaking and the kitschy, trashy chic of Romeo + Juliet. It differs from that latter film in the combination of modern (or futuristic, given the film is set in 2011) speech rhythms and Renaissance versifying. Scouse wit undercuts bombastic couplet, and the text is presented irreverently and iconoclastically. The combination of contemporary and 'historical' challenges the reverence often accorded to early modern drama as well as questioning our versioning and understanding of the past. It is not quite as consciously political in this aspect as Jarman's revisionist reading of Edward II, but equally effective in its interrogation of performance, cultural capital, and value accorded to the theatre. Casting Derek Jacobi in the central hypocritical role of the Duke foregrounds this interrogating of our obsession with theatricality and veracity. Jacobi provides a bridge to the theatre and to more straightforwardly reactionary films, such as Branagh's Hamlet.

  3. Sadly, for all the challenging ideas the film brings to bear on the play and contemporary society, the conclusion is something of an obvious and poorly realised moment. Vindici is gunned down by an army that turns into a cross-section of institutional repression--teachers, policemen, politicians--in what is as heavy-handed a metaphor as Leonard Bast being crushed by a shelf of books. The film doesn't really deliver on its own visual and conceptual potential--but in the end, any kind of 'point' would enable us to lose sight of the parodic, anti-humanist, cynical, black comedy of the play itself.

  4. Christopher Eccleston is magnificently brooding as Vindici--helpless and pathetic, but self-mocking at the same time. He is aided by a cast that plays the text very much straight (uninflected is probably a better phrasing), allowing the drama to develop its various points clearly and logically. Eddie Izzard--normally a byword for poor role choice--encapsulates the film in many ways, his performance as Lussurioso completely unarch but entirely hysterical: consciously anachronistic, lo-fi and disruptive. The film's--and the play's--purpose is to subvert, challenge, complicate and destabilise. It certainly does all these things, and is an admirable example of a textual updating that stays in sympathy with the text but avoids deference. The disrespectful child sticking his tongue out whilst viciously destroying the establishment is an image that works for Middleton, but also for Cox.

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).