Revenge is having a bit of a moment. Everyone’s talking about the potentially vengeful police in Making A Murderer, whilst the cinemas have been back-to-back with vengeance thanks to films like The Hateful Eight and The Revenant. And in real life, global powers are calling on the age old law of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; two days after the Paris attacks last year, Francois Hollande launched air attacks on targets on Syria. When that news broke, suddenly Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy – the revenge tragedy which invented the genre – took on a whole new meaning in my eyes.
Humankind has been thinking about justice since civilisation began, and popular culture – from Oresteia to Serial – hasn’t followed far behind in its attempt to understand how we right wrongs and punish the guilty parties. But one thing we keep coming back to in rehearsals is that justice isn’t the same as revenge. It sounds obvious, but it’s an important distinction, and one which has huge implications for Kyd’s play, which takes the genius step of including ‘Revenge’ as an omniscient – and perhaps omnipotent – figure. For us, revenge is something primal, animalistic; it is the instinctive younger sibling to the more considered, mature justice. And though the two may have the same outcome and might even be performed by the same people, we must hold them separately in our minds.
But why are we so obsessed with revenge right now? Why do we want to watch Leonardo diCaprio trudge across mountains and snowy plains to achieve it? Our company has a theory; as society seems more and more unjust, and as those with power and money get away with more and more without recompense, art about revenge offers a kind of catharsis. “This is what the world would be like,” it seems to be saying, “if bad people were punished for their actions.”
Kyd, however, complicates this slightly and pushes the idea of revenge to the point where it threatens to break the play. He seems ambivalent about the morality of revenge: although he sees it as a deeply human and understandable response to something awful happening, he also shows its devastating consequences, letting the whole sorry mess play out in all its bloody, horrific glory. Kyd suggests that if we all go around murdering people who have somehow wronged us there’ll be nobody left to pick up the pieces. In a way, it’s deeply comic. And he knows it.
And it’s this contradictory, complicated, and often downright ridiculous aspect of Kyd’s play which drew me to it in the first place. It is, unashamedly, not real. It is also, unashamedly, a Piece of Theatre. All of which means Kyd sort of has license to do what he wants and say what he likes, creating a mad patchwork of ideas. He oscillates between suggesting that bloody revenge is the only true response to certain acts, and asking that even the worst murders are subject to a rigorous, detailed legal system with plenty of checks and balances.
It’s not like Kyd, Shakespeare, Marlowe et al created the concept of ‘revenge’; that’s an idea as old as humankind. But they certainly went some way to popularising the thing. At a time when the effects of the Renaissance were properly starting to be felt in the British Isles, it feels like these artists are questioning what it means to have a guttural response to something, even as an increasingly refined society at large condemns that response. They’re working how human emotion fits into a more ordered, ‘just’ legal system, and they recognise that contradiction and confusion lies at the heart of that.
We’re embracing this madness and shoving it into a pressure-cooker space in the tiny room at the Old Red Lion. The audience, therefore, is in Revenge’s head, right up against the action; we have complicity through proximity. And when Hieronimo bursts through the seams of the play and takes control of the narrative, we just have to let it happen.
Granted, we’ve taken a few liberties with the original text; two central characters are now women and we’re telling the story with only six actors and a pared-down version of the play which rattles through in eighty-odd minutes. But the ideas are all Kyd’s: he sets the whole play within an unreal afterlife; he introduces the idea of an individual wrestling narrative control from a powerful narrator figure; he uses a play-within-a-play to ask questions about theatre’s relationship with reality. We’ve simply extrapolated them a little. But the play still survives, and if you don’t believe me go to your nearest library and find it in its full, vengeful glory. It’s on the shelf marked ‘Revenge’, right next to the Tarantino and the Taylor Swift.
The Spanish Tragedy is on at the Old Red Lion Theatre until March 5th. For more info, visit the theatre website here.