Dan Hutton’s clear-eyed production of this convoluted play steers a steady path through the death and destruction wrought by revenge, more revenge and yet more revenge. Hieronimo’s son, Horatio, has been murdered by double-dealing Lorenzo and love-struck Balthazar, because Balthazar is in love with Bel-Imperia, sister to Lorenzo and beloved of Horatio. Keeping up so far? It’s one of those plays where the bodies pile up and the plot thickens, hugely aided by the design (set and costumes by Lizzy Leech; lighting by Nic Farman; sound by Kieran Lucas) which keeps the deaths half-seen and provides plenty of opportunities for spying and skulking.
Leech’s design, with its wipe-clean floor and abbatoir-like plastic curtains, turns the tiny space of the Old Red Lion into a stark white box just begging to be covered in blood. And it is. However, my biggest quibble with the production is in a design choice: balloons of blood hang from meat-hooks, and as each character meets a horrible end, the bags are popped, drizzling blood across the white stage. Except that the blood is not blood-red, but rather a turquoise-blue, tying it in with the blue accents across the rest of the otherwise monochrome set and costumes. Unfortunately, it’s rather reminiscent of the “blood” used to advertise sanitary products on TV, and somewhat mitigates the horror of the gore and violence of the play.
That said, the is otherwise a solid production. Both India Semper-Hughes as Bel-Imperia and Rebecca Crankshaw as the grief-stricken Hieronimo take a while to settle in for this performance. Crankshaw handles Hieronimo’s long meditations on grief, motherhood and revenge, and Semper-Hughes imbues the rather blank Bel-Imperia with enough mischief and personality to make us care what happens to her.
Janet Etuk’s Lorenzo is wonderfully manipulative, and manages to make a rather thinly-drawn character become someone you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley with just a raise of her eyebrows. Jamie Satterthwaite is amusingly buffoonish as the easily-led Balthazar, and Lee Drage acquits himself well as Horatio and Andrea. It is Leo Wan’s smirking, creepy, ever-present Revenge who steals the show, directing the action and setting events in motion.
It’s a funny old play, though, with moments of poetry and moments where the language never quite felt comfortable in the cast’s mouths. Hieronimo’s long speeches sometimes felt at odds with the speedy action of the play – dispatching half a dozen people in 85 minutes means that the whole thing rattles along. The play-within-a-play sequence allows for an amusingly modern insert, imagining a strained dinner party in Muswell Hill, which is very cleverly captured (Ellie Horne).
In a world where revenge is a tangible presence on stage, it feels strange not to understand more of the characters’ motivations. it is unclear why Lorenzo, particularly, acts the way she does, forcing her sister into an unwanted marriage and murdering the pretty blameless Horatio. Etuk makes Lorenzo into a sinister enough figure, though, that it is easy to believe that sheer psychopathy might be the reason behind her machinations. Lucas’s sound design, which leans heavily on underscoring white noise, ramps up the tension and feeling of disquiet that Hutton’s intense production conjures.
The Spanish Tragedy is on until 5th March 2016 at the Old Red Lion. Click here for tickets.