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Punishment Without Revenge (Arcola)

The Spanish Golden Age continues at the Arcola with Laurence Boswell's revival of Lope de Vega's 1631 drama

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The second play in the Spanish Golden Age season - co-produced at the Arcola by the Theatre Royal, Bath, and the Belgrade, Coventry - is an intriguing humdinger: the history books have Lope de Vega's tale of honour, deceit, lust and murder down as one of his very best.

It just makes you wonder how many more of the 400 plus extant Lope plays might be worth seeing - the famous Fuenteovejuna, in which a village community kills a feudal overlord, was a huge success at the National some years ago.

In fact, this play has bobbed up on the fringe a couple of times, once in a version called Lost in Mirrors by the late Adrian Mitchell. Now using an impressive new translation by Meredith Oakes, Laurence Boswell's production, on a highly polished all-black design by Mark Bailey, re-introduces us to one of the most outstandingly unpleasant and all-powerful characters in Spanish drama, the licentious Duke of Ferrara, played here with vulpine relish and appalling charm by William Hoyland.

The Duke has "renounced" his womanising past and now resolves, saint-like, to marry the much younger Duchess of Mantua, Cassandra (a soignée, delightful Frances McNamee), in order to secure his family succession; he only possesses, so far, a bastard son, Federico (nicely judged by Nick Barber).

There's a coup de foudre when the new bride and her future stepson meet by chance; and before long we're in a "Phaedra and Hippolytus" situation, forbidden love emerging into the open when the Duke is summoned to Rome by the Pope. Federico's left minding the shop, and the Duke's niece, Aurora (Katie Lightfoot), who loves Federico, tries to make him jealous by pretending she loves an oily, opportunistic Marquis (Doug Rao). When the Duke returns he engineers a blood-curdling climax to preserve his "honour" and punish his son.

The play grips like a vice, ripples with machinations and also gives the Duke a series of towering and psychologically terrifying speeches, an opportunity seized by Hoyland with added vituperation. But all the characters come alive, Lightfoot's Aurora emerging slyly as the most sympathetic creature of them all.

There's a sort of carnal mimed prologue with a street girl in red (Hedydd Dylan) flashing her thighs on an upper level. But the main action's in this reflective, sheeny hothouse, and it's a pleasure, once again, to sample a couple of old court buffers from Chris Andrew Mellon and Jim Bywater, and the caustic asides, oeillades and hey-ho's of Simon Scardifield as a peripheral servant.

Punishment Without Revenge continues at the Arcola until 15 March