Friday, October 23, 2009

The Spanish Tragedy at the Arcola

Mitchell Moreno’s modern dress production of Thomas Kyd’s influential, but infrequently performed revenge play of the 1580s is bathed in blood. The final scenes are a cacophony of violence, of inventive slayings and splatters of red - it’s gloriously bombastic and operatic in scope, sending judder after judder through the unnerved audience. Many of the dramatic devices that appear here would find their way into later plays of the period.

Portugal has been defeated in battle by Spain and Balthazar, the son of the Portuguese Viceroy, has been captured. A marriage is suggested between the Spanish Duke’s daughter, Belimperia and Balthazar in order to broker peace, but Belimperia, mourning a dead lover, has amorously entangled herself with Horatio, son of Hieronimo, Knight Marshall of Spain. Horatio is duly and brutally dispatched.

Dominic Rowan plays Hieronimo who, traumatised and near-mad with grief after the murder of his son, seeks revenge on those who orchestrated it. It’s a intelligent and subtle performance. Initially he is little more than a background man, one of a number of suits, but events force his hand. His raw response to finding his son strung up from a tree is incredibly well-judged. He moves from soft-voiced disbelief, pleading and hoping that this is but some other clad in his son’s clothing, to the astonishing clarity of a man committed to his actions, however bloody the outcome. There are other strong performances in the cast and Charlie Covell in particular is impressively dignified as Belimperia.

Revenge in this production takes the form of a young girl in pigtails and ankle socks (played with the perfect air of menace by the eleven-year-old Shannon Williams in the performance I saw, although the role is shared) who watches events unfold from the sidelines accompanied by the ghost of the slain Spanish soldier, Andrea.

Moreno counters the absurdities and excesses of the play with a necessary measure of dry humour and – for the most part – he manages a good balance, as he builds up to the climactic play within a play (there are actually two plays within plays: the first provides a brief window of comedy before the blood-shed begins and the second, more pivotal scene is also performed with a measure of wit, using video projections, a Katie Mitchell-style layering of sound effects and streamers of red ribbon to contrast with the spreading stain of stage blood). In fact visually black and red dominate the production and the set is kept simple with a metal garage door at one end that can be raised at the push of a button, which is most effectively used in one of the final reveals.

The modern setting works reasonably well and the use of video and digital voice recorders never feel gimmicky. There’s a shady, almost gangland quality to the piece; it’s all money and machinations and messy exits. Subtlety is necessarily abandoned for the final scenes, which have more than a little of a horror film feel to them, with the increasingly malign presence of the Omen-eyed child, the bloody de-tonguings and a genuinely jolting take on falling on one’s sword.

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