If we told you we'd been to see a tragedy which opened with a ghost, where the lead wavered over revenge, and a play-within-a-play revealed the murderers, you'd probably buzz in with, "Err, was it Hamlet?"In fact, Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy was written before Shakespeare's greatest play [*insert your own arguments here], but actually had a huge influence on the Bard and his dithering Dane.Kyd's Spanish Tragedy was a huge success in its time. It's a great story: the ghost of a young soldier, Andrea, killed during a battle between Portugal and Spain, appeals to the spirit of Revenge to deal with Balthazar, who took his life.Balthazar has been captured by Horatio, and the Spanish King's nephew, Lorenzo. Released into the Spanish court, Balthazar tries to woo Lorenzo's sister, Belimperia, who was in love with poor Andrea. Feisty and bent on revenge, Belimperia falls in love with Horatio, partly to piss off Balthazar. Things turn nasty when Horatio's murdered and Belimperia's locked up. Horatio's father, Hieronimo, finds his murdered son, and the complications over guilt, revenge and sanity start to stack up. So too does the tension, the madness, and the body count, until the ghost of Andrea and Revenge are finally satisfied.The Arcola's production is a sharp as the casts' Paul Smith suits. This Spanish Tragedy is brought up-to-date with the Portuguese Viceroy soliloquising onto news channel PNN, Lorenzo giving out fat car-keys in reward for spying, and hidden digital dictaphones recording incriminating meetings.Pitched against all this smooth modernity, the shocking elements of the Elizabethan tragedy hit so much harder: letters written in blood, brutal hangings, axe-wielding suicides, Hieronimo's decision to do without his own tongue... Despite their obvious luxuries, these people have been driven back to horrible basics.The bleak setting adds to the tense atmosphere. The audience sits facing each other Westminster-parliament style, while the drama plays out, very close, in the space in the middle. Fantastic lighting, music and an excellent - sparing - use of video transform the Arcola's black box into a prison, a court, a theatre, and all the rest. The cast's sudden entrances from and exits into black nothingness either side, through slamming doors, and even bundled below a heavy, industrial metal door all serve to increase the tension. We've rarely felt so close to the action. When Belimperia whispers in fear, she's really whispering. When Hieronimo shouts, it's bloody loud. When people get shot, you jump, and wonder at your temporary deafness.If this makes The Spanish Tragedy sound like a tricksy production, more intent on style than the play's original substance, it's not. Underpinning all these cool add-ons is a tremendous cast with a real understanding of Kyd's stunning poetry, and bags of acting ability. We love how Charlie Covell plays Belimperia with such restraint and dignity; the charismatic Dominic Rowan has everyone rooting for his troubled Hieronimo.The Spanish Tragedy is worth seeing for the two plays-within-a-play alone: one, full of surprising, full-on belly laughs; the second is so drenched in tension, we found ourselves struggling to breathe.Oh, and if you were casting a character called Revenge, wouldn't you just go for a cute pigtailed 10-year-old in a party dress and white ankle socks... with dead eyes and bloodied knees?The Spanish Tragedy is on at The Arcola Theatre until 14 November. Tickets from £10. Call +44 (0)20 7503 1646 for the box office, or book tickets online.
Theatre Review: The Spanish Tragedy @ Arcola Theatre
Last Updated 21 October 2009