September 11, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

The Spanish Tragedy (Planet Theatre Productions) @ The Rose, Bankside

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Or perhaps that should be The Spanish Comedy; for Adrian Brown’s new production of Kyd’s epochal play understood the play primarily through burlesque. To render Elizabethan revenge tragedies disproportionately comic is, of course, a standard modern strategy, often used to great effect in productions of Titus Andronicus and even Hamlet, as well as to great effect in the Rose’s recent production of Soliman and Perseda. Here, though, a heavily-edited and self-consciously “funny” production came perilously close to stripping the play of its power.

It started unpromisingly. Sean Garvey’s Revenge entered amid a cloud of smoke, masked and in a black robe, with a staff atop which stood an illuminated skull. Don Andrea was cut, and in his place Revenge became a direct Chorus figure for the audience. The edited text (“I come to tell the story of Don Andrea” etc.) smacked of Jackanory rather than the depths of hell, not helped by Garvey’s gentle, meek vocal delivery and continuous vague hand gestures. With the Chorus so conversational, the framing device lost much of its impact. Happily, this was redeemed by interesting use of Revenge throughout the action of the main play: here fixing Bel-Imperia’s letter to a tree for Hieronimo to find; there taking on the role of the hangman for Pedringano; later stamping his staff to begin the final interlude. These scenes, casting Revenge as an active participant in the tragedy, hinted pleasingly at the greater significance of events, and mitigated somewhat the pointlessness of his storytelling in Kyd’s Chorus scenes.

The heavily edited text cut the Portugese sub-plot entirely and avoided the 1602 additions. Generally the cuts were minor, serving to streamline the action at the expense of some of the more complex political matter; the removal of Castile, for example, simplified the family dynamics while losing the symmetry of the two fathers. One more disappointing omission was the early masque conducted by Hieronimo, which might have made his decision to stage a play for the finale seem a little less unexpected and comical (it drew large laughs). Interestingly, though, the King still commended Hieronimo for his “device” – here, Hieronimo took on the role of the General in reporting the action of war, and the “device” he was commended for was his negotiation of terms of peace between the two countries.

The play was marketed on the strength of Hayward Morse as Hieronimo (“Planet Theatre Productions Presents Hayward Morse in The Spanish Tragedy,” to be precise), and Morse brought a dignity and powerful delivery to the role that anchored the production. He was most affecting as he fought to shout across the wide stage to the King with his petition; rebutted by the more powerful Lorenzo, he dithered in a meekly apologetic manner, before screaming out again at the mention of his son. Morse resisted the urge to make the part histrionic, instead internalising much of his grief and allowing it to manifest itself in the quiet humour that spoke of the mental breakdown within. He was ably balanced by Jan Hirst as Isabella, who relished the more physical and anguished raving that culminated in a great scene, hacking at the tree from which Horatio was hanged until, finally, the top branches fell away (though she left the stage without killing herself, denying her a proper climax). The two showed a mutual tenderness even in their shared insanity, clawing at each other for comfort and restraint.

This serious dynamic was played out on a larger scale at the start of the play, complemented by Barra Collins’s excellent Horatio, a well-spoken and evocative performance that left one with a genuine sense of loss after his murder. The relationship between Horatio and Hieronimo was foregrounded, the two constantly clapping hands on backs and standing together. The early dispute between Horatio and Lorenzo, the former backed up by his father, was one of the best dramatic stand-offs of the performance, the two presenting themselves as equal in merit with tension undercutting their friendship.

The other source of serious interest was Rosy Langlands’s Bel-Imperia. Following the aesthetic of the Spanish costumes, Langlands was a fiery Spaniard in red and black, all long flowing hair and scowls that could kill at twenty paces. This Bel-Imperia was neither good nor innocent: she was a tempestuous and independent revenger, whose lines dripped with disdain and scorn throughout, and whose scenes with Horatio smouldered with passion. While fascinating to watch, and desperately needed to counter the comic vein elsewhere, her aggressiveness was taken too far at times. Her “love” for the absent Andrea came across as utterly insincere at the start, giving the impression of a Machiavellian temptress who had only pretended to love Andrea in order to snare Horatio, which occasioned (presumably unwanted) laughter; and she only ever manifested anger and hatred in respect to the murders of her lovers, never a sense of loss or sadness, which left her lacking a dimension. Her rage, though, effectively put the fear of God into everyone who crossed her.

This also allowed for some comic business with the boys. Nic Choulman played Balthazar as out-and-out fop, a cowardly idiot and the main comic relief of the piece. Whether dithering as he tried to express love, crawling out from his hiding place in rage at Horatio and Bel-Imperia’s liaison (in a crude homage to Twelfth Night) or strutting in the new crown gifted him by his father, Choulman’s Balthazar was a harmless fool – at least, until his participation in Horatio’s murder. It was left to Richard Gee as Lorenzo to be the moustache-twirling villain, emphasising the character’s scheming and violent tendencies towards his sister. The dynamic was reasonably effective, but once established it changed little for the rest of the play, and turned the two into a villainous comic double-act rather than a particularly challenging threat. Both (especially Balthazar) were cowed and subdued by the far more terrifying Bel-Imperia, contributing to an even greater comic dynamic in scenes between the three.

With so much of the tragic plot rendered lighter than expected, it was no surprise that the comic scenes were played to full advantage, from Barra Collins’s frenetic Irish Page, gleefully revelling in the plot of the empty box, to the black-robed bickering watchmen, to Clive Greenwood’s swaggering brigand Pedringano.  This villain provided the necessary muscle for the princes, and exhibited an entertaining self-confidence that provided a great build-up for his arraignment. Employing a variety of contemporary gestures of defiance, one of the production’s most powerful sequences saw him laughing in the face of Revenge, standing in for the hangman, an ironic display of self-assurance even as fate drew in on him. Quite why the production then allowed Pedringano to leave without seeing the empty box (usually added as the dramatic pay-off for the long build-up) is a complete mystery to me, as the scene ended in media res rather than capitalising on its excellent set-up.

More amusement was found in Raymond Daniel-Davies’s avuncular King of Spain, presenting himself as everyone’s friend but with a fantastic undercurrent of tyranny, most brilliantly as the Viceroy bent to kiss his hand, which the King immediately lowered in order to force the Viceroy to kneel. He delighted in taunting Balthazar and the Portugese ambassador, and displayed an angry frustration with the wilful Bel-Imperia. It was only in the final scene that his jolly façade cracked as he cradled the body of his dead nephew.

It was in the denouement that the comedy finally went too far. It had been prepared for with farcical business as Hieronimo read the plot to his actors: Bel-Imperia, Lorenzo and Balthazar exaggerated their lack of understanding of it, inserting concerted “uhs?” and “aaahs” in response to the story of Soliman and Perseda (incidentally, fascinating to see having seen Kyd’s full-length version of the latter play in the same space only a couple of months earlier). More cheap laughs were bought as Bel-Imperia and Lorenzo looked at their modest parts, while Balthazar’s scroll rolled out yard after yard onto the floor.

For the performance itself, a mobile stage with red curtain was dragged in, and the action of the play was conducted in a series of tableaux and quick motions. The badness of the action was played up, along with a whole series of missed and pre-empted cues, forgotten lines, checking of parts, audience interruptions, shushing and costume malfunctions. The effect was to turn the final performance into a riff on the Mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe. While the point of this was clearly to justify the comic spirit that allowed the play to continue with the murders undiscovered, and to exaggerate by contrast the impact of Bel-Imperia’s suicide, it took things too far into self-parody, leaving the lingering impression of a comedy with a bleak ending. However, Langlands’s desperate locking of eyes with Morse before she stabbed herself was one of the play’s most genuinely powerful moments, and the final display of bodies – added to as the dusty body of Horatio was dragged from under the mobile stage in a neat symbolic moment – allowed Morse to conduct his final speeches in the appropriate environment before biting out his tongue.

There were niggles, mostly occasioned by a lack of trust in the structures of revenge tragedy that made the play so successful in its own time. Ironic laughs were exchanged for farce; complex character machinations were simplified into broad brush-strokes; and the drastic alteration of the Chorus scenes killed their effect. Yet the play retained its power, and in Morse’s performance, Hieronimo remained a wonderful study of grief and its effects. This was a thoroughly entertaining take on Kyd, with some strong performances and interesting dynamics, and a worthy complement to the ongoing Rose project of reclaiming its earlier repertory.

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