The Spanish Tragedy (MBU Shakespeare & Performance) @ The Wharf Loft

Sergio Leone famously described his editing of Once Upon a Time in the West as timed to the slowing heartbeat of a dying man; at the structural, formal level, the film slowly loses its breath, its pulse, suffusing the whole with the weight of passing. If Alaina Smith’s Gold Rush-set Rover borrowed and parodied the music and the iconic set-pieces of Leone’s work, Cait Redman’s efficient and austere Spanish Tragedy resonated with Leone’s more existential concerns. The collective deep exhalations of the company that served as soundtrack to the awakening of Don Andrea (Shawn Passero) in Hell situated this whole production in the space of a dying breath, a suspended moment of clarity – and of inevitability.

The Spanish Tragedy, as this production understood beautifully, is a play of foregone conclusions, whose drama concerns the waiting for resolution. The pre-show, during which Mikaela Hanrahan in full costume as Bel-Imperia shook the building’s foundations with a devastating bluesy take on ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’, disrupted linear time in its foregrounding of grief before actual death (at the end of the pre-show, Pete Sheldon’s guitarist, transforming into Balthazar, slew Don Andrea with a dirty strum of his guitar). The song choice, of course, iconic for my generation in Kurt Cobain’s cover for MTV Unplugged, itself evoked the inevitability of a story defined by what followed for Cobain. And as Passero stepped up before Andrea’s own murder to give his own raucous take on a classic murder ballad, once again privileging the grappling with death before the death itself. For this Spanish Tragedy, then, everyone knew what was coming – and, as Fawzia M. Istrabadi’s Revenge made clear to Andrea, the wait was all.

Revenge, a regal queen in classical robes, oversaw the transactions necessary to bring the play’s characters to their final end. As characters died – miming the actions of their wounds and releasing red ribbons, in a homage to Yukio Ninagawa’s famous 2006 Titus Andronicus – Revenge moved among them, passing each a coin for Charon and taking from them one of their ribbons. This Revenge wasn’t bloodthirsty, but certainly took pleasure in her work, with a satisfied smile as she moved among the dead bodies or produced for Eli Cronin’s Page the empty box that would seal the fate of Pedringano (Genevieve K. Henderson). Yet Revenge was no mere emblem of a process; Istrabadi’s resentful performance of Revenge’s irritated dismissal of Andrea’s calls for her to awake was funny as she swatted the earnest Ghost away, but also indicative of a detachment from the work; and at one point, Revenge put up her arm to prevent Andrea from leaping into the action to save Horatio (John Williams), her action showing surprising care of the Ghost. Revenge’s commitment to the Ghost seemed sincere, and she provided a fixed point for Passero’s dislocated wanderer. Andrea kept trying to resituate himself in the action of the play, at first joining the ranks of the Spanish court as if clinging onto his former place in life. Later, his interactions succumbed to reality. With the hanged Horatio standing on a block centre-stage, Andrea joined Hieronimo (Christopher Niesner) in walking around Horatio’s body, and then the Ghost sat on the block to act as a prop for his dead friend as Hieronimo leaned the body back against him. The instantly iconic image of the Ghost carrying the burden of Horatio was one of a number of striking visual images created in the production, flashes that saw the characters accepting their role within Revenge’s scheme and literally bowing to the weight of inevitability.

All of this set the frame for a pacy production in which both comedy and tragedy emerged from characters’ ability to reconcile themselves with the inevitable. The comedy was strongly felt from the start, particularly in Sheldon’s Balthazar, a man who refused to accept his capture and even tried, pathetically, to run away while the King of Spain (Johnny Williams III) decided which of Horatio or his nephew Lorenzo (Cece Richardson) would reap the rewards of Balthazar’s capture. The decision to play Balthazar as a Sir Andrew-alike flailing fool was unusual, but paid off with some fun flourishes; Sheldon’s cape-swirling malevolence allowed him to chew the scenery, but his exaggerated flailing at the foot of Bel-Imperia, or his pratfall when the Ghost playfully blew in his ear and made him collapse to the floor in a panicked heap, repeatedly undermined Balthazar’s own presentation of himself as a badass. It was Richardson’s Lorenzo who, in the absence of Balthazar’s competence, commanded the stage in initiating the schemes; sweeping across the stage with a calculated smile and a swaggering gait, Lorenzo was the true power here, utilizing Balthazar as an excuse to work through his own grievances.

By playing the villains as predominantly comic, the production at times became reminiscent of the more committed parody of The Revenger’s Tragedy. Balthazar’s overt dimness (when given the scroll of his part for Soliman and Perseda, he held the tip of it at arm’s length as if it were about to explode) and lack of self-awareness was interestingly refracted through Henderson’s Pedringano. Pedringano was smart, bowing sarcastically to his masters and sharing ironic asides with the audience, but so confident in his smartness that he marched straight to the hangman’s stool, smiling in the face of the watch, of his judges, of his executioner. The moment at which Jacob Laitinen’s guard rigidly and with hilarious deadpan revealed the empty box that should have contained Pedringano’s pardon was very funny, but the sudden and belated shift on Pedringano’s face as he suddenly realised just how much shit he was in was surprisingly affecting. Similarly, Cronin’s Page may have been another comic (if unwitting) accomplice to the plots of the villains, but the pitch-perfect guilelessness of the Page’s decision to open the box and discover it was empty, before wondering plaintively what to do, brought an entire row of the audience’s hands to their faces in unified pitying endearment towards the tragicomic figure (similarly, the Page’s rapturous applause for Balthazar’s self-indulgent performance similarly found a note of pity in the mockery).

Counterbalancing the comic villainy was the fate of Hieronimo and his allies, played dead straight. This was the element of the show that benefitted most from the production’s design interests, from the lavish Spanish Renaissance costumes (Hailey Pearce) to the sensitive lighting shifts (designed by Williams III) that abstracted the tragic characters and underscored the profundity of what they experienced. Within this main plot, the sincerity stood in stack contrast to the ironic or playful performances elsewhere. Hanrahan’s powerful Bel-Imperia, foreshadowed in the pre-show as a dominant figure, knew what she wanted and refused to brook the foolery of figures such as Balthazar when they intruded into her space. She allowed others to come to her, and either dismissed them (as with Balthazar) or welcomed them (as with Horatio). Horatio and Bel-Imperia’s wooing offered a bright spot for both characters, and found some youthful humanity amid the classical formality as they came together. The suddenness of the attack in the garden thus enacted a brutal tonal shift, with Bel-Imperia screaming defiance (no small thing when Hanrahan is the one doing the screaming) and needing to be wrestled away with force by Balthazar, while Williams took his place on the platform, accepted a garland from Revenge, and snapped into position as a hanged man (the movement work throughout, choreographed by Morgan Rose Ford and Caroline Lyons, acting to emblemise and aestheticize death, without sacrificing its emotional heft). By insisting on the gravity of this and the other deaths without resort to stage blood or comic bathos – such as Henderson’s brief, pitiful suicide as Isabella towards the production’s end, she collapsing into a heap after pulling down hanging vines from a frame, and then slitting her own throat – the production insisted that even the smallest losses bear weight.

Niesner, as Hieronimo, sat squarely in the middle of this as mourner-in-chief. To get the play down to an hour-long cut primarily necessitated cuts to Hieronimo’s ravings and, most notably, his humour (the Portugal subplot was also entirely excised, sensibly). The cut required a lot of heavy lifting by Niesner to negotiate the downward spiral of events, much of which was achieved during Hieronimo’s interruption of the King’s procession. The formality of the King’s court, with its clear hierarchies and Williams III’s commanding presence, brooked no disorder, and thus Hieronimo’s frenetic disruption, Niesner’s hair falling about his face, substituted for the play’s longer chronicling of Hieronimo’s madness by stressing his shift from the King’s enabler to being his biggest disrupter. The effect was to play up the emotional sincerity of Niesner’s Hieronimo; this was not the comic revenger, but a deeply grieving father, and one gaslit into frenetic and desperate behaviour by the attempts of others to convince him that he was mad, or unreasonable. As such, Hieronimo’s decision to stage the play as his final revenge – a decision which came about quite abruptly in this cut, in the only moment where the accelerated pace felt a little too fast – marked a powerful transition as Hieronimo’s humour and sarcasm came out at the point when he found his resolution as he handed out the literal scripts to their predestined ends.

And so, the King, Castille (Laitinen), and Ambassador (Cronin) took their positions for Hieronimo’s play, sitting in front of Revenge and Andrea, and thus presenting themselves as the penultimate audience of the play’s violence. Entertainingly, and in a way that underlined the production’s interest in inevitability, Hieronimo produced his very real knife and flourished it for the audience, to ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ – by explicitly showing and drawing upon the scriptive qualities of the knife, perversely, he ironically disarmed his victims, and Castille in particular whooped and cheered and sobbed through the murders. It was the King who realised, putting out an arm to stop his brother from clapping, that the murders were real as Hieronimo revealed and propped up Horatio’s body. And Hieronimo was left with the final acts of defiance as he gutted Castille as a bathetic afterthought and left the shocked King alone with the Ambassador, surveying a stage chaotically littered with bodies.

Hieronimo’s revenge was messy; Revenge gave it order. It was Andrea’s turn, now, to give out the coins, he joining in Revenge’s macabre transaction. Revenge raised the bodies, which processed it, allowing her to collect their bloody strings as they did so. And then Revenge and Andrea, left alone in this universe, were able to themselves leave the stage, to the sound of two final completed breaths, and then one final inhale, an incomplete breath on which to end the play in a moment of interrupted respiration. And in the refusal to complete the breath, the production conjured the suspended finality of death, the inevitability of interruption itself.

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