Review: The Spanish Tragedy, Arcola Theatre

“Vengeance is mine. Ay, heaven will revenged of every ill”

The Spanish Tragedy was written by Thomas Kyd in the 16th century and is regarded as one of the first ever examples of the revenge tragedy. Kyd’s play proved to be highly influential on other Elizabethan writers such as Marlowe, Jonson and indeed Shakespeare, Hamlet in particular takes much inspiration from several key elements of this play. It is presented here at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney, one of the most interesting fringe venues in London, with a great cafe and bar for pre/post-show interactions.

In the aftermath of a bloody war, the royal leaders of war-torn Spain and Portugal plan a marriage between their families in the hope of forging peace. But the bride already has a secret lover. When he is murdered to make way for the new groom, his father Hieronimo is forced down a brutal path of vengeance from which there is no return. Watched throughout by the ghost of a soldier and Revenge, personified here by a chillingly played, creepy little girl, there seems no doubt about the inexorable path of vengeance that Hieronimo takes, the implication being that their supernatural influence is guiding the grieving father. Yet the heart of the play is more about the human reaction to being wronged, and the pervasive need for retribution, no matter the consequences.

As Hieronimo, Dominic Rowan is entirely captivating. In the intimate space of the Arcola, there’s nowhere to hide and subsequently no escaping the intensity of the emotion that he shows, from the sorrow at the death of his son to his anger at the complicity of the royal family to the unnatural calm demonstrated during the execution of his final revenge. Initially a quiet man of words, he is forced to the fore by painful events and his clamour for revenge and the slow realisation that actions speak so much more loudly than words is really quite hard to watch, yet still engrossing. Elsewhere, I was bewitched by Charlie Covell’s mellifluous tones, her speaking voice is gorgeous (even more so in French) making her Belimperia a painfully tragic figure, unable to manoeuvre out of the machinations of those around her, including Patrick Myles’ ambitious and conniving Lorenzo. Keith Bartlett, Guy Williams and Richard Clews lend real gravitas through their senior royal roles, making this a very well-rounded company, with some doubling going on as well.

It is performed in modern dress, which works for the most part, although the relative anonymity of the various suits proved a little difficult in the opening scenes, when I was struggling a little to distinguish the key players from each other, but armed with a cast list I was soon on top of things. Props and staging are pared down to a minimum, so that when something is produced, which is invariably a weapon or a corpse, it becomes all the more effective. The discovery of Horatio’s suspended bleeding body was a simply sensational scene, hauntingly played by all and one of the most heart-wrenching evocations of grief I’ve seen on the stage. And the final scene, when Hieronimo exacts his final revenge on those who have wronged his family, is as brutal and gory a finale as you will see anywhere.

On a slightly lighter note, the use of the Japanese Kuroko theatre style to present the first play-within-the-play was ingenious and provided a welcome comedic respite in the midst of the bleakness: it really does command a huge level of respect for the performers who have taken on this challenge whilst also playing roles in the play itself. And I think this is indicative of the joys of seeing theatre on the fringes, you have the opportunity to witness epic theatre up close and have the kind of intense experience, suffused with an inventive spin, that you rarely get in the West End. Highly recommended!

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