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The Spanish Tragedy, Blue Elephant Theatre – Review

Thomas Kyd

Directed by Ricky Dukes
★★★★
Pros: An easy to understand, highly watchable production of this Elizabethan play edited down to an hour and a half and performed by a highly skilled cast.
Cons: Unusual lighting choices, constant smoke and a hot theatre made for a somewhat uncomfortable viewing experience.
Our Verdict: The quick pace, use of physical performance, modern costumes and well-crafted performances make this production by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries a refreshing alternative to typical classical theatre productions.
Credit: Adam Trigg
As the audience entered the cozy, black box theatre, the actors were warming up on stage. Once everyone was seated, a quick lighting change triggered a frantic set up and start of the first scene. Combined with a haze of fog from smoke machines, stark lighting and sudden noises, I felt like I was part of a physical theatre battlefield. The first scene contrasted the opening and progressed in a rather languid manner. All of the actors had rich, tonal voices and spoke the language skillfully, though disregarding the iambic pentameter at times. Roseanna Morris made an excellently authoritative King of Spain and it is always refreshing to see women playing male roles in the classics. Fortunately, the pace picked up after this scene, snowballing to a wonderfully disturbing end.
This production was endowed with devices to immerse the audience in war and political conflict. The lighting designer (Miguel Vincente) disregarded traditional stage lighting in favour of the theatre’s work lights and portable halogens to cast murky shadows and half-lit silhouettes. Though very creative and mood-capturing, there were several occasions where I struggled to see the actors’ faces and had bright lights shining directly into my eyes. The set consisted of a few white chairs, rough cream-coloured fabric draping the proscenium and some aluminium ladders. Costumes were no-nonsense, 1940s style with military touches of coats and medallions. At the same time, we were kept from completely immersing ourselves in the world of the play by incongruent balloons, party horns and a stack of play scripts, including one for The Spanish Tragedy (Folks educated in theatre would call this “Brechtian”).
The company of actors, like the aforementioned Roseanna Morris, were largely excellent. I could have closed my eyes and listened to this as a radio play due to the aurally appealing voices and genuine emotion. My particular favourites were Felicity Sparks as a beautiful, tortured Bel-Imperia, George Clarke as the passionate Viceroy of Portugal and Adam Cunis and Danny Solomon, respectively playing brothers Horatio and Hieronimo. James Peter-Bennett also skillfully portrayed the smarmy Lorenzo, with character choices and a costume reminding me of David Cameron – what a wonderful villain to garner the audience’s hatred! The rest of the company were a pleasure to watch, though I struggled to be convinced by the grief of Isabella (Safron Beck) and that she was the mother of Horatio and Hieronimo due to them all looking about the same age.
The play itself was one I merely knew of before watching it, but Ricky Dukes skillfully edited it down to about an hour and a half, with no interval. Likely written five to ten years before William Shakespeare penned Hamlet, there are obvious parallels between the two plays. Shakespeare was a magpie, drawing on a wide range of source material for his stories and this is an obvious influence (providing scholars are correct in their dating estimates). Hieronimo is a Hamlet-esque character, vowing revenge on the murder of his brother and engineering a play-within-a-play that deliberately causes the final scene’s stage to be littered in bodies, with the King, Queen and Viceroy of Portugal initially reveling in what they believe to be performed deaths. The brutality of the deaths that fill this play remind me of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, but Kyd’s writing is much more skillful than that of Shakespeare’s first tragedy and the end to this play is wonderfully horrifying with elements of grotesque comedy. The war, conflict and resolution to it has parallels with other Shakespeare plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and his histories.
This is a highly recommended production by the established Lazarus Theatre Company and a great one with which to become more familiar. It is easy and enjoyable to watch, skillfully performed and a creative interpretation of this classic play on the London Fringe.

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The Spanish Tragedy runs at Blue Elephant Theatre until 19th October 2013.
Box Office: 0207 701 01 00 or book online at

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