You have to admire the ambition. Dan Hutton, part of the rising young company Barrel Organ, has squished Thomas Kyd’s tricksy, tangled revenge tragedy into the tiny Old Red Lion on a micro-budget. It’s a move that requires a radical edit, with Kyd’s 30-strong character list sliced down to nine, and an inventive, symbolic staging. But for all the contemporary, post-dramatic trappings – so rare at this level – it strips too much away by half.
Hutton and dramaturg Ellie Horne have boiled Kyd down to a tight cycle of revenge: Horatio’s murder is avenged with a mistake, an innocent man’s death, before more follow as a corrective. It comes in under 90 minutes.
Played on a plain white floor, with plastic slaughterhouse sheeting as a backdrop, it builds an unnerving atmosphere. Nic Farman’s strip lighting buzzes and flickers, Kieran Lucas’ electric score does the same. It’s played detached and cold, almost spoken rather than fully enacted, with a few totemic props – a crown, a pardon, several letters – all in block blue, added into proceedings. It’s a minimalist approach; if it’s onstage, it’s important.
The problem is that everything’s so pared back, the play’s stripped of its flesh, and so wary of pretence, that it stops being enjoyable.
Following in the footsteps of director Ellen McDougall‘s work, Hutton finds alternative ways of representing violence. Baubles of blue ink hang from meat hooks, dangling ominously over a pristine white floor. With every death, predictably, one gets punctured, and the victim stands still, spotlit in white. It’s bloodless in more ways than one. Rob a revenge tragedy of its deaths and you render it joyless: a moralising fable, a sugar-free pudding. ‘Violence begets violence, kids.’ Like, duh.
Kyd builds to a play-within-a-play, often thought a precursor to Hamlet’s, in which real knives are used and real lives lost. This is Hutton’s boldest move by far: having begged the question of representing violence, he asks why we watch it as entertainment. Rather than Kyd’s words, the actors swerve into the contemporary colloquialisms of a crap soap opera – proof, apparently, that our tastes haven’t much changed. It’s a startling about-turn, destabilising, but only for a few seconds.
Not all of Hutton’s conceits add up: you can see that there’s thinking behind them, just not always what that thinking is. Why, for example, does Rebecca Crankshaw’s Hieronimo bleed red for real at the end? What makes her pain different?
Impressive though it is to see genuine experimentation on the fringe, The Spanish Tragedy feels like notes towards something tighter.
The Spanish Tragedy runs at the Old Red Lion until 5 March.