The Spanish Tragedy has been a massively influential play since Thomas Kyd wrote it in 1587. It inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet, and created an entire new genre: the revenge play. Dan Hutton’s edgy, modern production uses a clinical, abattoir-like set and a pared-back version of Kyd’s script to tell its bloody tale.
In Lizzy Leech’s brilliant design, the scene is set by a bare, white stage framed by plastic sheeting. Nic Farman’s lighting is effective, with bright, flickering strip lamps and there is a low, tense soundtrack by Kieran Lucas that continues throughout. Six meat hooks swing from the ceiling, laden with ominous pouches of blood. Oh, and the blood is blue.
The Spanish Tragedy follows the royal families of Spain and Portugal. During a battle between the two nations’ armies, Andrea (Lee Drage) is killed by Balthazar, prince of Portugal (Jamie Satterthwaite). Heronimo (Rebecca Crankshaw) mourns her son and Bel-Imperia (India Semper-Hughes) mourns her husband. Both women vow to avenge Andrea, as his killer Balthazar is now a prisoner at the Spanish court. Meanwhile, Balthazar enlists the help of Lorenzo, Bel-Imperia’s sister (Janet Etuk) plot to arrange the marriage between him and Bel-Imperia. However, she spoils their plans by declaring her love for Horatio (Lee Drage).
As the plot unfolds, the personified Revenge (Leo Wan) is instrumental in the messy collision of different characters’ stories. This play contains as much dramatic irony and as many crossed wires as any Shakespearean tragedy. When the deaths begin the violence is understated. Each doomed character appears ghost-like behind the plastic sheeting at the back of the stage, and a bulb of blood splatters from a meat hook to the white floor.
In many tragedies, the plot moves on quickly and death become normalised as the audience gets used to it and each murder fades from memory. Not so in this play. The blood remains on stage throughout the rest of play, as an inescapable reminder of each life lost. The play-within-a-play is also used effectively used to show the tension of the various relationships in a contemporary context and emphasise the lengths people will go to get revenge.
Rebecca Crankshaw is particularly impressive as Heronimo, who is actually a male character in the original script, with a raw emotion which is even more shocking against the stark backdrop. Janet Etuk also does well in her gender-switched role of Lorenzo, showing chilling glimmers of malicious glee. The rest of the cast are generally strong, but seem inexperienced, with some tripping over their lines. Semper-Hughes’ performance in particular is fairly wooden at times, with no apparent grief at the murder of her husband or her lover.
This is an experimental and daring telling of The Spanish Tragedy. While many of Hutton’s ideas pay off and are highly effective, some aspects of this production seem contrived. The blue blood, for example, seems provocative for the sake of it with no underpinning in the text. This creative approach refuses to play safe: it is not perfect but certainly highly original.
Reviewed by Annabel Mellor
Photo: Joe Twigg
The Spanish Tragedy is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 5 March 2016