The Spanish Tragedy with Dominic Rowan (Arcola Theatre 26/10/09) 27 October 2009

Deja vu - on so many levels. Where to start? There are three things that prompted me to see this. 1. It was at the Arcola which has done some great things and it's in my neck of the woods. 2. The image of a young girl in a party dress with a bloody axe was intriguing and 3. I have heard great things about featured actor Dominic Rowan. On a basic level I wasn't disappointed. I always like going to Arcola, wondering how the designer would get around the pillars in the Studio 1, there was a bloody little girl and Dominic Rowan pretty much lives up to his promise as the next big thing. What I had to contend with were uneven performances, not very visceral direction, and derivative design and storyline. Well, that last bit - derivative storyline - was the biggest issue. How was I to know?

From sometime between 1582 and 1592, this Elizabethan tragedy by Thomas Kyd was written in, you guessed it, language familar to Elizabethan's (and those with an ear for Shakespeare which I have mentioned in other posta can be hit and miss). For some reason this didn't click when I was reading the description so it turned out to be a rude awakening.

As those who have seen many Shakespeare plays will say, there are good versions and bad versions. For me, much of what determines good or bad is the delivery of the spoken word. It doesn't matter how many Shakespeares an actor has done or how much they have trained in Shakepeare, it all comes down to whether or not you can understand what they're saying. This was the biggest issue.

There were five different styles of delivery -The classically trained verse speech which lost any meaning or comprehension, the 'if I speak really fast it will sound like regular speech' method which again you can only get bits and pieces, the 'I'm not really sure what I'm doing but I will give it a go' method which surprisingly enough was more effective than the previous two, the 'I'll speak very quitely and slow' method which - well you can figure out how effective that was and finally the I know how to speak this language to make it understandable and emotionally satisfying. My favourite.

Keeping all this in mind, it took me a while to figure out what was happening and who was who. As it's set in Spain, and all the actors were suits, trying to figure out who Hieronimo was as opposed to Lorenzo and Balthazar took some work. Due to the variances in performance I only caught bits and pieces of what was going on however I did get to grips with the basic storyline. Someone died in battle, the love he left behid - Belimperia, falls for the son of Hieronimo who was one of the men responsible for saving the Prince in battle. The Prince falls for Belimperia, her brother orchestrates the murder of Hieronimo's son so Belimperia would be free to marry the Prince. Hieronimo vows revenge and gets it at a performance of a play within a play. There are a few more intrincacies to the story but that's basically it. There were also a few oddities which I couldn't figure out.

The girl in the bloody dress was there talking to, I think, the ghost of the Belimperia's original flame. They were always in and out saying things I couldn't catch. Also there was a show, puppet like but using the actors bodies with someone elses arms sort of thing. I think they may have been giving some background, didn't catch that either. However It was visually effective in its own way.

The space was set up with the audience on either side. Pendulum lights hung over the main playing space, there were two heavy black doors at either end and a working garage door with an additional playing space behind it. All actors were in modern dress, mainly dark suits (but why a few of them had brown shoes defied explanation). In addition to the story line this was another deja vu factor, this set was very reminiscent a production of Edward II I saw at Battersea Arts Centre - suits, pendulum lights used to focus light on specific scenes. I looked into it - not the same designer.

Directorily it was laclustre. I think the director, Mitchell Moreno, never really conquered the playing space. What seemed like intimate scenes between two characters were played with the actors as far apart as possible. There were big gaps between scenes, someone would exit at one end and there were a few too many beats before someone else entered, leaving the audience to keep watching the doors at either end to figure out where the action would resume. The play within a play at the end was very well done and very effective with the use of hanging mics and music however the murders got messy and the focus was lost.

I don't feel the actors were very committed to the production. They rose to the occassion when it was needed but there was something missing. I think it was a connection between the actors and as a result, the characters. Dominc Rowen was really good as Hieronimo and Patrick Myles as Belimperia's brother, orchestrator of all that is bad was also very good. Otherwise, it was akin to watching a summary of a story. The little girl who played the little girl was most effective as a visual incongruity but vocally was incomprehensible.

Later that evening Iooked the play up online. Ahhh, ok now I understand why it seemed so deja vu-esque. The Spanish Tragedy predates Shakespeare and establised the revenge play as a new genre in English Theatre. Shakespeare's Hamlet is said to have it's roots in the play citing the ghost figure (Also, I found out that the girl is the embodiment of revenge and she along with the ghost are discussing how revenge will be taken on all those involved in his murder. The fact that it was a little girl was a device invented for this production. Why? Who knows).

Although the production isn't entirely succesful, kudos to Doublethink Theatre for mounting a play that is rarely seen and trying to bring something new to it. Unfortunately, it ends up being one of those plays that is most effective if you know where it sits within the history of theatre. Deja vu.

The Spanish Tragedy Online