“It was written in a time of great social and political upheaval,” Jesse Berger says. “And we’re in a time that is very much like that. It’s also about abuse of power and hypocrisy in government and their dangers. Those things are unfortunately all too relevant.”
Berger is artistic director of the Red Bull Theater Company, and he is talking about the 1607 Jacobean drama The Revenger’s Tragedy, which his company is presenting in an online benefit reading September 14 at 7:30 PM ET.
“The play deals with vigilantism,” he says, “and a corrupt government. I think we’re living that every day, sometimes quite uncomfortably so, in this country certainly. I think it has a lot to say about how to have a just society, how to seek justice in the world and not do it in an eye for an eye kind of way. To me, the play is about showing the ultimate nihilism of eye for an eye justice, the ultimate death spiral it would mean for our society.”
Berger directed and adapted the play, which features a reunion of many members of the cast of Red Bull’s critically praised 2005 production. Zoom is the base platform, and then it will be streamed on the website. “We have actors from as far afield as Australia and Canada and New York and across the country,” Berger says.
Admission is free but donations—$25 per viewer is suggested—are gratefully accepted. The live stream can be viewed at RedBullTheater.com and at YouTube.com/RedBullTheater. Advance reservations are recommended. The play will remain available until 7 PM ET, September 17.
“The play’s basic story is sort of like a Hamlet story,” Berger says. “It’s about a man whose fiancée was murdered, and who seeks revenge. That’s how the play begins. It’s as simple as that, really. That sets off a cycle of retributive violence throughout all of the corrupt court of Venice, because there are lots of other characters who are all vying for power. There’s a very powerful corrupt duke; you have his wife, the duchess, who has two ambitious stepsons; and then she’s having an affair with the duke’s bastard son, who also has ambitions to be duke.” But amid all the violence, Berger has said, is a “dark comedic touch.”
The Revenger’s Tragedy was first performed around 1607, just a few years after Hamlet, its author anonymous. Early scholars at first ascribed it to Cyril Tourneur, but in the 20th century, experts decided that its playwright was Thomas Middleton.
The anonymity may have been due to the play’s eager embrace of overthrowing a government. There still remains some dispute about the authorship, and other Jacobean playwrights may have contributed, he says.
It’s typical of much Jacobean drama written during the reign of King James I (1603-25), Berger says. (James is Jacobus in Latin.) “Red Bull Theater was founded in 2003 with a Jacobean play by Shakespeare called Pericles, not what people normally think of as Jacobean drama. You normally think of Jacobean drama as blood and guts and great revenge tragedies, like Macbeth, and like The Revenger’s Tragedy. And that’s sort of what Jacobean drama connotes, even though the definition would entail also great romances like The Winter’s Tale and Pericles and The Tempest. To me it really includes both of those sides of the coin, and Red Bull has embraced both from the beginning. After Pericles, our second production was The Revenger’s Tragedy.”
The works of many Jacobean playwrights, Berger says, “especially Shakespeare’s contemporaries, tend to have less introspection than Shakespeare. So I think that those Jacobean plays are in some ways more contemporary for us, have more in common with our own time, when everything is moving so fast, than the more thoughtful, reflective plays of Shakespeare. Because of the way that [those Jacobean plays’] plots are moving so swiftly, and people are not taking the time to think and say, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’”
Berger’s adaptation of The Revenger’s Tragedy is a free one, he says. He has incorporated in the original text words from Francis Bacon, John Donne, Thomas Kyd, John Marston, Thomas Middleton, William Shakespeare, Cyril Tourneur, John Webster—and Jesse Berger. “I wanted to learn as much as I could about the other Jacobean plays, and I was looking for a few lines to move in here or there to try to help clarify the plot, which can be a little complicated.”
Red Bull is named for a London theatre that illegally presented plays when the Puritans banned stage productions. Red Bull’s specialty is Jacobean drama, but it also presents other works. Plays Berger has directed for his company include Pericles, The Revenger’s Tragedy, Edward the Second, Women Beware Women, The Duchess of Malfi, The Witch of Edmonton, The Maids, Volpone, Loot, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, The Changeling, and The Government Inspector. He won a 2018 Obie for his direction of The Government Inspector.
Berger is planning to offer at least one online reading a month. “We’ll do a combination of what our mission really is, which is about revitalizing the classics for contemporary audiences—so we’ll do some rarely produced Jacobean plays—and some new plays that are inspired by the classics, and some other rarely produced classics from other genres and other countries.”
October 19 at 7:30 PM ET will see a new play, Keene, by Anchuli Felecia King, “which involves racism in academic Shakespeare conferences,” Berger says. “It revolves around two students preparing dissertations on Ira Aldrich,” the 19th-century African-American actor who achieved success on the London stage and was likely the first Black actor to play Othello in England.
“We’re going to do some events around Othello in October,” Berger says, “really trying to talk about race and Shakespeare.”