The Spanish Tragedy
“King’s College Chapel is so fantastic a setting that it’s difficult not to grant this play a star before it’s even begun.” NANCY NAPPER CANTER is impressed – but only because she was sitting near the front.
King’s College Chapel, 7th-10th November, 7.30pm, £6/12
Dir. Niall Wilson
From where I was sitting, this was a four star show. King’s College Chapel is so fantastic a setting that it’s difficult not to grant this play a star before it’s even begun. Once it began, however, only the people sitting in the front half could enjoy it. Had I been sat further back – unable to hear what was going on – this review would be very different.
The Spanish Tragedy is filled with murder and misdeeds. When Don Andrea is killed in combat by the Portuguese Prince Balthazar, the gods of the Underworld return him to earth. And there, accompanied by the spirit of Revenge, he witnesses his lover Bel-Imperia’s new requited love for his friend Horatio. The envious rage this causes Balthazar – who, captured, is living with Bel-Imperia’s brother – leads to a tangle of slaughter and revenge (with diplomatic motives tied in with the amorous.)
The first thing you notice is the echo: the booming drum roll makes for an exhilarating opening. And though you grow accustomed to the acoustic, the moments in which it particularly complements the script are striking throughout. For example, when a distraught Isabella (played with poise by Mary Galloway) shrieks ‘Heironomo!’, it’s all the more effective for becoming, ‘Heironimo-oh-oh-oh…’. The near constant echo also imbues the silences with particular gravity. The silence after Balthazar (the ever confident Luka Kryslijanin) violently grabs a shocked Bel-Imperia reverberated just as powerfully as Isabella’s shrieks.
Now for the impracticality: while all this booming is thrilling if you’re at the front, if you’re at the back, it drowns out the dialogue. As a result, there were lots of empty seats in the second-half. This was a great shame, because the acting is strong. The crisp delivery and empty, unblinking stare of Liv Emden’s red-hooded Revenge are memorably chilling. As Don Andrea, Joey Akubeze’s break down at the news that Horatio has been murdered is visceral and vivid, and grief is again superbly realised by James Parris as Horatio’s father Hieronimo. Ever compelling, it’s a sign of Parris’ ability to command the audience’s empathy that Hieronimo’s coughs didn’t just echo against the chapel walls – they were echoed by several audience members.
Like Akubeze and Parris, Stephanie Aspin as Bel-Imperia is convincing in sorrow. She’s less credible, however, when coquettish or enraged. A lack of spark between Bel-Imperia and Horatio (Sam Curry) made their amorous teasing – ‘If I be Venus, then thou must needs be Mars’ – much less engaging than it should have been, and Bel-Imperia’s outbursts at her brother similarly lacked passion. Surrounded by men in tights, her straightened, side-parted hair also annoyed.
This anachronism (and the sound issues) aside, the direction is very impressive. The dim lighting keeps the atmosphere appropriately menacing, and the aforementioned use of live music is wonderful. In particular, the gentle guitar accompanying the fantastically bloody dumb show makes it all the more exciting. This scene really does justice to the line, ‘what age has ever heard of such monstrous deeds?’
Inevitably, the play isn’t as awe-inspiring as its location, but it doesn’t feel out of place. As long as you’re not sat at the back, this is a wonderful experience – the memory of which will echo for months to come.