After a point, it must have gotten difficult for Jacobean dramatists. Revenge-filled bloodbaths are in, and sooner or later, your audience isn't going to bat an eye at your traditional stabbings, stranglings, or poison-coated objects. You need to come up with something really odd.
Luckily, John Ford was ready to deliver.
The Sam Wanamaker's latest revenge tragedy in a season full of them, Ford's The Broken Heart (directed by Caroline Steinbeis) concludes with some of the most bizarre and upsetting methods of death the new theatre has seen so far. And remember they also did Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.
Actually, The Broken Heart has occasional echoes of 'Tis Pity: its central character (at least at first) is Orgilus, a young man whose engagement was abruptly broken off by the lady's brother, Ithocles, who gave his sister away to someone else (someone else who, at one point, becomes convinced that his new bride, Penthea, is sleeping with her brother, among others). Orgilus has been driven frantic by his loss, and busies himself with obsessing over his own sister's chastity and disguising himself as a monk. Ithocles, meanwhile, has returned from war and is showered with praise, titles, and rewards from the King-- but finds that all this is worth nothing, because he has fallen in love. This is a source of twofold pain: he is in love with Princess Calantha, whom he can never hope to wed, and his new understanding of the pain of thwarted affection has caused him to feel unassuageable remorse for what he did to Orgilus and Penthea.
What's most fascinating about the play overall is its gestures towards a very modern-feeling psychological complexity. Ithocles, for example, has undergone a genuine change of heart that Orgilus refuses to acknowledge. Luke Thompson's dynamic and compelling Ithocles, by turns glowing with youthful arrogance and staggered by the weight of his own guilt, could almost be the hero of a play written 300 years later. Unfortunately for him, in Brian Ferguson's manic Orgilus, he's matched with an old-style revenger, and their clash seems almost to be as much stylistic as moral: Orgilus cannot believe that Ithocles can possibly have truly changed. It seems at the last that Ithocles can't wholly believe it, either.
Equally well-drawn by Ford and well-performed are the ladies, Amy Morgan dominating the first half as Penthea and Sarah MacRae's Calantha bursting center stage in the second. The play flits from perspective to perspective, allowing many characters-- the women included-- to take control of the story at different moments. It's not until late in the second act that the familiar steps of the revenge tragedy are set into motion, and by then it's abundantly clear that these characters will not conform quietly to their traditional roles-- though there still are, as mentioned above, plenty of deaths carried out in spectacularly bizarre manners.
Steinbeis's production joins Jacobean and steampunk-Spartan in costuming combinations that don't always make complete sense, but are unquestionably striking. She wisely allows the tone to be frequently comical, especially in scenes with Pentha's husband Bassanes (Owen Teale), the King of Argos (Joe Jameson), and even Orgilus and Ithocles. A favorite gesture is letting all the courtiers awkwardly laugh at the king's bad jokes. However, everyone is treated fairly-- which seems like a strange thing to say. But the complexities of Ford's characterizations could easily be smoothed over by an inattentive director; similarly, the blurring of comic and tragic could allow the ending to descend into violent farce, as was somewhat the case with 'Tis Pity earlier this season. Steinbeis and the actors, however, allow all the characters the dignity of their complications.
The Broken Heart is the only extant early modern play set in Sparta, and fittingly, the dominant note for most of its characters is stoicism: excessive displays of emotion are roundly mocked, impeccable self control the highest form of honor. I'm still not entirely convinced as to how a revenge tragedy was meant to make one feel-- not genuinely sorrowful, surely? The admirable resolve with which every character faces their demise makes it difficult to feel sad, exactly. Or have we just lost the ability to connect to such stylized emotions? But this production comes closer than most-- not that its characters would want you to admit it.