This Spanish Tragedy, in fact, is more like a Spanish omelette, full of incomprehensible jabbering between the courts of Spain and Portugal while the hero Hieronimo – played by that excellent, but here rather subdued, actor, Dominic Rowan – stalks his enemies to revenge his son, who has been stabbed and garroted (upside down) in the arbour.
He is aided by an ever-present Ghost (Francis Ortega) and an allegorical figure of Revenge, here played for no very good reason by a sweet little axe-wielding girl. There are some wonderful character studies that don’t get the full swagger they deserve, though Keith Bartlett is a suitably tough amd grizzled King of Spain and Patrick Myles a faintly satanic Lorenzo.
Murder follows murder in the smoky haze of Emma Chapman’s lighting – the old warehouse does have something of the abattoir about it in Helen Goddard’s unadorned design – and climaxes in a play-within-a-play staged by Hieronimo in which his son’s killers are knifed, his son’s lover Bel-Imperia (Charlie Covell could let rip more) stabs herself through the throat and our hero bites off his own tongue and falls on his blade.
You can see where Hamlet was coming from: the play is a landmark in English playwriting and is so rarely seen – there was a gusty National Theatre production by Michael Bogdanov, with the late Michael Bryant as Hieronimo, in the early 1980s – you just wish this version was more complete, and more compelling.
It was usual for the arbour to remain on the stage throughout as an emblem of the womb of destiny, life and death, but the Arcola show doesn’t tap into the existential dimension any more than it does the lip-smacking excessiveness. The trouble with a cool, measured approach, though, is that you lose sight of what is extraordinary about the play in the first place.