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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Arcola Theatre


Thomas Kyd's drama, the first revenge tragedy, has a body count to rival the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and the Arcola, unadorned, certainly puts one in mind of that fateful garage. At one end of the long, low, dimly lit hall, a metal burglar barrier slams down at intervals, and the black theatre doors have been painted with a red border at the bottom, as of blood seeping through. At the end of this play, written circa 1585 by a contemporary of Shakespeare who died young, the floor is strewn with corpses, who are only the latest victims. There is hanging, stabbing, mutilation—fun for all the Elizabethan family.
Mitchell Moreno's cast all look very sharp in their mainly dark Paul Smith suits and leisure wear, but some are distinctly better than others at rolling the verse trippingly off the tongue. Top of the class are the sonorous Keith Bartlett, as the King of Spain, and the dapper Guy Williams (no, not that one—he is slashing his Z's on the robes of angels) as the Duke of Castile. They speak in the traditional grand manner, but the younger members of the cast are more casual, even offhand. Dominic Rowan stars as the knight Hieronimo, and, though he is lovely to look at, lacks power. Patrick Myles, the greedy and treacherous Lorenzo, whose assassins murder Hieronimo's son and start the bodies falling like dominoes, can be lucid and enjoyably rat-like, but the characterisation is not sustained over the length of the performance. On the whole, the acting suffers from a want of intensity—the violence does not emerge from emotions sufficient to motivate it. Even if the point is the banality-of-evil thing, one needs more vocal menace than this to put it across.
With the play staged in a long, narrow space, its horror is also muffled by the tennis-match style of watching imposed on the audience—and then only when they twig that they should be looking far left or right, as Moreno does not signal when we should turn and watch, say, an actress in a glass-walled booth listening in on earphones. This and other arty horror tricks, now almost as clichéd as moustache-twirling—echoing microphones, a luridly coloured film of falling red rose petals—conflict too stridently with the elemental passions of this melodrama and such rhetoric as, "What outcries pluck me from my naked bed?" (I did, however, quite like the tryst interrupted by villains who abduct the screaming lady and stab the lover, to the accompaniment of Barry White.)
Even in this unsatisfactory staging, though, and with an edited text, the old shocker is well worth seeing, for both its intrinsic and historical interest. There is foreshadowing of Hamlet (of which Kyd was said to have written a version, now lost, before Shakespeare) as well as Agatha Christie, especially in the play-within-a-play that the hero mounts for more sinister reasons than entertainment. It's a device that reminds us that all acting is a conspiracy against the everyday horror of reality.


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