Punishment Without Revenge

Lope de Vega, translation by Meredith Oakes
Arcola Theatre

Tragedy is harder to pull off than comedy. And three plays on rotation over seven months in three different theatres is a feat for one ensemble. But that’s no excuse for a rather tired performance as Part II of the Arcola Theatre’s Spanish Golden Age Season at The Arcola Theatre.

El castigo sin venganza (literal translation: Punishment Without Revenge) is one of early seventeenth-century playwright Lope de Vega’s most celebrated works. Pregnant with classical allusions, it tells the story of secret love between son and stepmother, weaving together well-worn themes of incest, honour, morality and retribution.

Count Federico, illegitimate son of a lecherous old Duke, falls in love with the well-bred Cassandra brought to be his father’s bride. Discovering the Duke only wed Cassandra as a front to hide his continued debauchery, Federico and his new stepmother give in to their passion. When the Duke returns from war chastened, their tryst unravels.

Directed by Laurence Boswell, long-time promoter of the Spanish Golden Age, this production plays up similarities to Shakespearean plays that preceded it by two or three decades. Meredith Oakes’s translation nods to Macbeth when Ricardo talks of “the milk of human kindness”. And Boswell suffuses his visual landscape with references to Hamlet, Federico bursting onstage halfway through the first act rumpled shirt hanging loosely, hair on end, eyes staring wildly: “I’m not the man I was”. “What…is more insane than I am?” he asks, as his father sends doctors to diagnose him.

But where Hamlet stays predominantly with the eponymous hero, Punishment flits between Federico, Cassandra, the Duke’s niece Aurora and at least one comic subplot. There isn’t enough character development of Federico or Cassandra for the audience to understand their need for each other. And it doesn’t help that the sexual tension between Nick Barber and Frances McNamee is lukewarm, signalled only in their initial advances by a Game of Thrones style exit, McNamee in Barber’s arms like a bride crossing her threshold.

All this makes Federico’s self-torture seem like petulant whining; something even the text seems to nod towards: “I may exaggerate beyond all sense and reason…” And so the anticipated bloodletting at the finale strikes an English audience as a watered-down version of Shakespeare or Marlowe.

In Don Gil of the Green Breeches (Part I of the Season), the actors loved their lines, lingering over some of Sean O’Brien’s finer translation. In Punishment, they seemed to resent them, stumbling and grumbling through Meredith Oakes’s work.

That said, there are some standout performances. Frances McNamee as Cassandra embodies turmoil concealed by poise. Her monologue modulates from soft whisper to imperious cry as she captures the tear-smiled mask of a woman covering her true emotions.

Brilliant too are Simon Scardifield and Annie Hemingway as the comic duo of the subpot. Mixing slapstick—as Lucrecia does away with ponderous Batin’s shot of liqueur—with wit—as Batin finds words to describe Federico and Cassandra’s love: “They have taken to each other almost like a mother and son”—they lift the play’s pace.

Mark Bailey’s set and costumes are enough to almost make you forget you’re in a less-established venue. Luxurious velvets and starched ruffs left me wondering where the budget had come from. And the actors' carousel-like use of the double doors at stage rear was an inventive way to flit back and forth between scenes naturally.

But in comparison to Don Gil, Punishment has less artistic value. Whereas de Vega is already well-known to English audiences, Tirso de Molina (Don Gil’s playwright) is a less familiar name and therefore ripe to be served in translation.

This production felt a little too self-indulgent, made for those already in love with plays of the Spanish Golden Age, not made to convert those in a modern English audience who don’t know it.

Reviewer: Belle Donati

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