The Rose, tucked away into an alcove of Bankside, is a funny little theatre space: part performance space, part museum, part archeological dig site, and flooded with atmosphere. It’s a difficult place to stage any piece, and this new version of The Spanish Tragedy (originally Thomas Kyd, adapted here by director Adrian Brown) only succeeds occasionally. The whole piece is a collection of strange disparities: there’s some truly stellar performances alongside some truly lacklustre efforts, staging that veers between the representative and the naturalistic, clever stage effects mixed with some quite shoddy moments… It’s difficult to rate this play as more than the sum of its parts, which ends up being decidedly average.
Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, loosely contemporaneous with some of the more classic Shakespeare plays, clearly borrows or has been borrowed from in equal measure: fans of Shakespeare will be completely at home with themes like revenge and loss, as well as devices such as plays-within-plays and the slightly supernatural, and the language and story here is as rich and intriguing as some of the Bard’s more famous pieces. It feels correct to stage such a play in a venue as historically charged as the Rose: it wouldn’t seem out of place in the Globe around the corner, but the Rose’s almost spooky interior stands the project in even better stead: a good choice in venue.
However, apart from the pure choice of venue, the piece doesn’t really own the space as much as one would hope: the set feels mostly out of place, and apart from some vague hand gestures towards the water-logged old stage space, referencing various ‘dark pits of Hades’ and all that malarkey, this really could have been performed anywhere: in a space as profoundly peculiar as the Rose, it seems fair to expect pieces that utilise this strange space more. A good start was made here, but didn’t really seem to have been followed through.
This theme seems to continue along most production angles. An example: some props, such as the beautiful crowns, are exquisite and a credit to the production team, while others, such as the retractable daggers, seemed positively crummy in comparison. The same can be said for the costumes, the staging, even the acting: Hayward Morse gave a stupendous Hieronimo, as did Richard Gee as the villainous Lorenzo, but much of the rest of the cast floundered horribly, especially the unconvincing young lovers, Bel-Imperia and Horatio, and the supposedly-diabolical-yet-remarkably-wooden Revenge. The directing also seemed a little vague in places: the staging of some scenes made perfect sense and helped the script along beautifully, while others were a cataclysm of poor sightlines and awkward struggles.
In the end, the two strongest actors had the most stage time, and thus the piece was still enjoyable: Morse in particular gave Hieronimo’s long monologues marvellous power and pathos, and his strong voice echoing around the Rose’s underground gloom was a joy to experience. However, there are plenty of big issues here, and most of them won’t be solvable without a complete overhaul. Fans of Shakespeare and his contemporaries will find something to enjoy here, but from a purely theatrical angle the many disparities in this production average out to a pretty unremarkable whole.