Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy
Lazarus Theatre Company
Blue Elephant Theatre, Camberwell
8 October 2013
Reviewed by Peter Malin
References to the play are to Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, ed. by Clara Calvo and Jesús Tronch, Arden Early Modern Drama (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
Ricky Dukes’s cut-down production of Kyd’s tragedy, coming in at 1 hour 40 minutes, was something of a curate’s egg. Paradoxically, perhaps, it was most effective when it was least faithful to the text, allowing its uneven company of young actors to break free of their constricting reverence for an iconic play whose language and dramaturgy often seemed beyond their capabilities. This shortened and adapted version didn’t really allow the play room to breathe, so that exposition, characterisation and plot development often seemed distinctly perfunctory. It was a relief, though, not to be confined in this tiny, claustrophobic theatre for the full three hours or more, stifled in the production’s permanent smoky haze that caught at the throat and obscured much of the action.
Worst things first. The decision to make Hieronimo and Horatio brothers rather than father and son, with Isabella as their mother, was a mistake whose repercussions persistently undermined the production. I’m told it was because the company could not find an actor mature enough to play Hieronimo, which seems unlikely; in any case, Danny Solomon could easily have passed as Adam Cunis’s father, particularly through the perpetual smoky fug. As a result of this decision, the text was weakened by the unconvincing substitution of “kin” for “son” – “Alas, it is Horatio, my sweet kin” (2.5.14) etc. – occasionally varied with other familial synonyms such as “blood”. To compound this error of judgment, other fathers and their children also became siblings: the Viceroy of Portugal was brother to Balthazar, and the Duke of Castile to Lorenzo and Bel-imperia. This was just silly. A man’s grief for his dead brother simply does not carry the same cultural resonance as that of a father for his son, leaving Solomon hamstrung from the start by a reconfigured relationship in whose depth of feeling it was impossible to believe. This was a great pity as Solomon was potentially a fine Hieronimo, his most moving effects achieved in his quietest moments, when he did not make the mistake of over-emoting on top of the already rich rhetoric of grief. In Kyd, much more than in Shakespeare, the words do most of the work and are not in need of actorly histrionics. If “hope, heart, treasure, joy and bliss” (4.4.93) seemed unlikely qualities to be invested in a brother at the play’s powerful climax, that was not Solomon’s fault; nor, presumably, was the scruffy brown coat that made him look more like the palace caretaker than the Knight Marshal of Spain. This was an excellent actor in need of a different production.
Elsewhere, the company had at best a rough-hewn honesty and energy but too often resorted to amateurish posturing. This was particularly evident in the ludicrous pacing of George Clarke’s Viceroy backwards and forwards across the width of the stage, like something out of a singularly inept school play. Not his fault, I suspect. Lorenzo and Balthazar presented an interesting reversal of the usual performance tradition, with James Peter-Bennett’s rather camp Lorenzo the nerdier of the two, negating the role’s cool machiavellian villainy. Jamie Spindlove’s Balthazar, meanwhile, was sincere and likeable, and where previous actors in the role have gone for comedy in their delivery of the prince’s romantic rhetoric, with its see-sawing irresolution and discursive ebbs and flows (2.1.9-28, 111-33), Spindlove took these speeches with head-on seriousness, suggesting a genuinely painful emotional confusion. There was some gender reassignment for the roles of Alexandra and Pedragina [sic], played as women as their renamings suggest; and for Revenge (Maria Alexe), whose now conventional regendering yielded no new insights. Inconsistently, Roseanna Morris – startling, jovial and over-the-top in bright red – remained King rather than Queen of Spain; she and Clarke’s Viceroy between them strained all gravitas from the play’s politics. Again, I suspect a directorial imperative rather than actors’ performance choices. Apart from Solomon’s Hieronimo, the best performances were those of Adam Cunis as Horatio, a well-spoken and dignified lover; and Felicity Sparks as Bel-imperia, played with passion and sincerity but in need of greater emotional complexity.
The play was mounted simply and, to all appearances, cheaply: a bare stage, some white wooden chairs, a metal step-ladder, adjustable white drapes, coloured balloons and bunting. The lighting was rather hit-and-miss, sometimes barely penetrating the pervading fog and often illuminating the wrong actors. There was no music until a single, insistent piano for Hieronimo’s climactic show. Costumes were standard modern-eclectic, denoting character and status rather than conveying any sense of period consistency; not all of them seemed to fit their wearers comfortably. All this was unexceptionable; fifteen actors is rather a lot, I guess, for a small fringe show, so economies were excusable.
More interesting were some of the interpretative decisions that went hand-in-hand with the textual editing. As we entered the auditorium, at the play’s advertised starting-time, the actors were gathered onstage in a circle, engaged in warm-up exercises which gradually morphed into marching armies, and the play began not with Andrea recounting his mortal and ghostly back-story, but with Spain’s Lord General addressing the King (1.2) at the head of a line of actors stretched out across the stage-front, eagerly listening to his battle-report. When he arrived at the circumstances of Andrea’s death, the Ghost and Revenge were highlighted among the crowd and gave a shortened version of Kyd’s opening scene, before we tuned back in to the King and his court. Though clever, this device was confusing for those who didn’t know the play and, more importantly, weakened the play-within-a-play structure that Kyd so carefully establishes. As Revenge and the Ghost did not “sit […] down to see the mystery” (1.1.90) but participated in various ways in the main action, the performance trope was lost and their subsequent dialogues popped up confusingly out of their roles as extras. The metatheatrical actors’ exercises were revived, though, for Hieronimo’s celebratory show in 1.4, a white-masked movement piece accompanied by the choral speaking of tongue-twisting number sequences. There was something half-heartedly avant-garde about this, and it didn’t quite work.
In contrast, the reimagining of Hieronimo’s play of Suleiman and Perseda was staged with full-blooded commitment and a dangerously anarchic comic energy. Hieronimo did not name the play to his recruited actors, and his explanation of its story was cut. What Dukes gave us instead was a modernised love-triangle with a violent outcome, again performed in masks, with sung text accompanied by the jolly thumping of an offstage piano. The reactions of the courtly audience were also given a modern-colloquial rewrite, comically so in the case of the increasingly inebriated King, and the whole thing was like one of those awful parties where you remain stubbornly sober while everyone else spirals out of control. The stilling of this frenetic chaos at Hieronimo’s revelation of Horatio’s body was powerfully managed, and Solomon’s delivery of the “Here lay my hope” speech (4.4.89) was immensely moving. Then, Dukes sprang a risky surprise, as startling as it was unexpected. Just as the King, Viceroy and Castile had grasped that the killings were real rather than acted, as they knelt and cradled their loved ones in their arms, Hieronimo turned and asked, “But are you sure they’re really dead?”. There followed a painfully extended sequence of clowning in which the grieving “kin”, sharing the imagined joke that had been played on them, fell into paroxysms of relieved laughter as they vainly slapped and manhandled the bodies, urging them to revive – a sequence played out just to the limits of the audience’s tolerance. The nobles’ realisation that they had twice been cruelly duped was quickly succeeded by a surprisingly restrained enactment of Hieronimo’s notorious autoglossotomy and a flurry of further killings: Hieronimo stabbed not only Castile, as in the text, but the King and Viceroy as well, after which he shot himself in the mouth. There were oddities amidst all this invention that jarred, such as the irrelevant inclusion of Hieronimo’s line, “Here break we off our sundry languages” (4.4.73), and his retrospective references to the “Suleiman and Perseda” characters, including himself as the Pasha, of whom we had not previously heard. Quibbles aside, this was one of the most exciting parts of the production, and the rest of the play would have benefited from something of its transgressive daring.
In a truncated version of the play, the Q4 additions are clearly surplus to requirements, and none of them was included here. Instead, inevitably, there were deletions, though the arguably redundant Portuguese scenes remained. The hanging of Pedringano – sorry, Pedragina – only works as a grimly comic interlude in conjunction with the Page, his empty box and the non-existent pardon. These were omitted here, rendering Pedragina’s complacency baffling. This was a shame, as Amy Bowden’s pert Cockney servant deserved her big moment and didn’t quite get it, despite her impressive gurning and gurgling as she was “turned off” (3.6.54). Not only was the 4th addition, the famous Painter scene, not performed, but the Old Man scene for which it substitutes had disappeared too. Instead came one of the production’s most effective and affecting sequences, built around a collage of some of Hieronimo’s speeches from 3.13. Alone on a dark stage, a lantern in his hand directed towards the audience, Danny Solomon was at his quiet best. Midway through what had become an intensely emotional monologue, he turned himself and the light to reveal Horatio’s ghost standing behind him, prompting an entirely new reading of the speech beginning, “And art thou come, Horatio, from the depth / To ask for justice in this upper earth[?]” (3.13.144). The effect was to play down Hieronimo’s madness, which had vanished along with all the farcical business of the petitioners and Bazulto, and present him as a man genuinely haunted, either actually or psychologically, by the spirit of his murdered son/brother. In the simplicity of this scene and the excesses of the last lay the seeds of a far better production of this great but challenging play.