The Spanish Tragedie is a very early example of a revenge tragedy and has many of the hallmarks of the later - more famous - examples. It features a wronged father, a virtuous maiden whose betrothed returns from the grave to seek vengeance, a murderous brother and many other now familiar stock characters. It also features a final scene where the wronged father gains his revenge for the murder of his son by killing various key characters during the course of a play that he has written for performance at court.
It is an oddly structured work where the first forty minutes or so are exposition rather than action based. This imbalance is hardly rare in drama from this period but it does present challenges for a modern audience. Similarly the use of rhyme was common in both comic and tragic works. However our ears are not so attuned to this use of language and the constant rhyming couplets do have a tendency to sound trite rather than resonating with emotional intensity.
The biggest challenge, however, is probably finding a way of making the excessive bloody final scene work. The original audiences would have shocked and enthralled by the never-ending series of murders and suicides - we, however, are more jaded and more likely to laugh at the unfolding horror.
With all this in mind, William Maynard, the director, has to be applauded for his courage in choosing to present such a flawed text. It is not without merit but it lacks the poetic intensity of Shakespeare or Marlowe and, whilst influential, it is not the most accomplished of revenge tragedies. Consequently, my feeling was that he tried to compensate for the shortcomings of the play by layering on too much direction. I found myself constantly distracted by the movement of the actors. When dealing with an unfamiliar text, it is important for the audience to be kept at the centre of the story-telling - with the actors moving around the outdoor space with such rapidity much of the nuance was lost and consequently key moments of character development failed to register. There are excellent moments - such as in the discovery of the body of Horatio (Alex Khosla) and the inventive use of cross-casting (Kate Lewin is impressive as the wronged Heironimo).
The cast are full of talent and offer total commitment to the task at hand. James Corrigan registers strongly as the murderous Lorenzo - a prototype Iago/Edmund - making best use of his natural charm and swagger. Dave Coghill and Emile Halpin also make their mark with clear and witty characterisations.
This is by no means a failure of a production. The team have clearly worked with care and diligence to make the best of what is a difficult play. The performances are universally strong and there are many moments of theatrical flair and inventiveness. I just wished they had chosen a stronger play rather than one that is of more interest to scholars than modern theatre audiences.
Performances continue at Oriel College until Saturday 6th June. Tickets are available from Tickets Oxford (www.ticketsoxford.com) or on the door.