The Spanish Tragedy
Kings College Chapel, 7.30pm, until Fri 9 Nov
Where words prevail not, violence prevails. The Spanish Tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s only surviving work, certainly sets out to prove this is the case. Set in the Spanish court, at the very end of a bloody war with Portugal, the play lacks nothing that a successful Elizabethan revenge tragedy needs – betrayal, intrigue, a ghost, and a healthy number of corpses left over at the end. Don Andrea has been killed in the war by Balthazar, the son of Portugal’s Viceroy – but he returns from the underworld accompanied by Revenge, to seek justice for his own death.
Meanwhile, in the Spanish court, Balthazar has been captured in the same war by the gentlemanly Horatio. Bel-imperia, beautiful and virtuous, previously in love with the deceased Andrea, now begins to fall for brave Horatio instead – but also gains the unwilling attention of Balthazar. Balthazar, working with Bel-Imperia’s own brother Lorenzo, has Horatio murdered – and it is up to Horatio’s father to discover the truth seek revenge on all concerned. There are a number of sub-plots and incidental killings, and no-one ends well.
The production has more to offer than an over-complicated plot, however. Directed by Niall Wilson and produced by Debbie Farquhar, it is performed in King’s College chapel – which proves a very striking and well-suited space for the tragedy to unfold. There could hardly be a more suited space – the whole performance is lent a wonderfully dark and gothic edge, and the lighting used increases the tension further, with swift changes from light to dark, many shadows and candle-lit revelations. The acoustics of the chapel, though perhaps making the blank verse slightly inaudible at times, certainly add to the eerie atmosphere. Considerable and very creative use of music is brought to the production – an exciting and clever innovation (the organ is particularly good).
Performances were also impressive. Kyd’s characters do not leave a great deal of room for subtlety – it would be difficult to overact in The Spanish Tragedy – but the confident deliveries in this staging matched this aspect well. Particularly impressive were Bel-Imperia (Stephanie Aspin) in a masterful demonstration of restrained despair, and Hieronimo, Horatio’s vengeful father (James Parris). There is a fine line between laughter and tragedy in a play as blood-soaked as this – but Hieronimo’s maddened grief and desperate plotting were both pitiable and impressive.
At three hours, this drama may be better suited to those with longer attention spans, and it does take a while to get started (there is a frustratingly long wait for the first murder). But this may be more the fault of the text than the production – and it was compensated for by the play’s macabre edge, which could hardly have been brought out better here. With the spectre of unfulfilled revenge, a play-within-a-play scene and bloody conclusion, Kyd’s work is often thought of as an inspiration for Hamlet – but it is more enjoyable. Above all, the performance is spectacular. King’s Chapel should be the setting for revenge tragedy more often – it’s hard to think of a more suitable location for murder and malevolence.