The Spanish Tragedy @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast list
Dominic Rowan, Penny Layden, Keith Bartlett, Guy Williams, Richard Clews, Charlie Covell, Patrick Myles, Hasan Dixon, Richard Shanks, Andrew Fallaize, Francis Ortega, Msimisi Dlamini

directed by
Mitchell Moreno
Written in the 1580s, and influencing two generations of dramatists, Thomas Kyds The Spanish Tragedy doesnt grace English stages much these days.

This is a shame because, although the same proportion of characters end up dead as in Hamlet and Titus Andronicus, two works that it greatly influenced, it is much more than just a simple bloodbath.

Following the defeat of the rebelling Viceroy of Portugal, the King of Spain (Keith Bartlett)and Duke of Castile (Guy Williams) attempt to consolidate the peace by marrying Balthazar (Msimisi Dlamini), the Viceroys captive son, to Castiles daughter, Belimperia (Charlie Covell).
Belimperia, however, is distraught that it was Balthazar who in battle killed her love, the Spanish officer Andrea (Francis Ortega). He, in turn, seeks to wreak vengeance from beyond the grave using the shadowy figure of Revenge, personified in this production by a ten-year old girl.

On one level, the play warns against the dangers of seeking revenge. Once decided upon, the thirst for it can never be assuaged, and the first victim of Andreas quest is actually Horatio (Hasan Dixon), son of the Knight Marshall of Spain, Hieronomo (Dominic Rowan). When, however, Andrea laments that Revenge has taken his best friend instead of his enemy, we rather suspect that Revenge has simply moved on one stage by reading his subconscious thoughts. Belimperias affections have switched to Horatio since Andreas death, and so he too has to die.

Conversely, the play is also a warning against the dangers of showing ‘inappropriate’ magnanimity in victory for it is this that sparks the subsequent tragedy. The play appeared at a time when English hatred of the Spanish could hardly have been greater, something which goes some way to explaining these apparently contradictory points.

Depending on when precisely it was written, the Spanish Armada was about to, or had just, set sail. A few jokes emphasise the straight forward effectiveness of the English, such as those in the first halfs staged play (performed brilliantly here through an automatic garage door), in contrast to the flowery ways of the Spanish. Overall, however, the hatred is too intense for the humour to be classed as gently mocking in tone. With a strong sense of moral and practical superiority, the play derides how the Spanish (supposedly) behave, and shows what it leads to.

The production is given a modern day edge with contemporary costumes (in the form of some sharp Paul Smith suits), and pleasing touches such as the use of digital recording equipment to eavesdrop on a conversation. It is also high on drama with its abundance of blood, hanging bodies and powerful music. The long, thin performance area, however, sometimes feels too large to maintain the required pace, and the acting performances dont always sustain the pungency of the scenario.

Bartletts King and Guy Williamss Duke hold us in our seats as they boom to great effect, but there is insufficient underlying strength to the quiet resilience of Rowans Hieronomo. Myless Lorenzo lacks dramatic integrity, and whilst Covell is an intriguing Belimperia, her stylised voice and actions cannot match the powerful performance of Penny Layden as Hieromonos wife, Isabella. In one show-stealing scene she seems so genuinely pierced to the heart by the death of her son, that her decision to end her life by putting a blade to her breast seems entirely believable.

If all of the acting performances were on a par with those of Bartlett, Williams and Layden, this productions emotional intensity might match its considerable dramatic qualities.

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