15 February 2014

Punishment without Revenge at the Arcola Theatre

Punishment Without Revenge is one of the three plays in the Arcola Theatre's Spanish Golden Age Season. All three looked interesting and I chose to go and see this one simply because it was the one that was playing on the day that I decided to be in Dalston.

Originally called El Castigo sin Venganza in was written by Lope de Vega in 1631. To put that in context, The Tempest was written in 1611.

I went to a Saturday matinee and it was very popular. The audience was full of older people like me, obviously seasoned theatre goers, rather than the more mixed and overall much younger audiences that I am used to at Arcola.

One outcome of this was that an orderly queue started forming well before the doors opened and this soon stretched all the way to the front door and started to curl back toward the bar. I got in line by the front door and feared for an unaccustomed seat some rows back. Then one of the helpers announced that they would also be using a second entrance to the theatre and I found myself at the front of the queue for that and so was able to claim a seat in my preferred front row in the short back of seats at the front of the stage.

The view of the stage that I took from there was not very illuminating as all it showed was a dark wall of black panels and gold borders. It looked something like an antique Japanese lacquered cabinet.

This wall started its life in the play as row of houses in the city of Ferrara (in the north of Italy) where the Duke, disguised in simple robes, and his two companions were looking for a little fun of the female kind. We discovered that the Duke has long played around with women but is about to be married to the Duchess of Mantua, for political reasons, and that his step-son and apparent heir, Federico, was at that moment on his way to collect her.

We then met Federico and is small entourage as they rested among some willows while on their way to meet the Duchess.

A scream alerts them to an incident nearby and they go to help. A carriage has crashed and they rescue two ladies from it. These, it soon transpires, are the Duchess and her maid. Federico and the Duchess fall immediately and deeply in love and this forbidden love drives the story.

The Duchess marries the Duke, a Marquis escorting the Duchess peruses a lady of the Duke's court who, in turn, has hopes (and expectations) of marrying Federico and the Duke goes off to war to fight for the Pope. Other threads are woven between the players and a complex situation develops where it is difficult to see an easy way out of.

It does not end well. In fact it ends much worse than expected by some way.

The ending was dramatic, unexpected (by me at least) and tragic, and the journey there was at times humorous, at other times emotional, and always compelling. This was fantastic drama.

The cast were all wonderful, even if the Duke (William Hoyland) looked rather too much like Donald Sutherland for comfort. He was very commanding, as a Duke should be. The Duchess (Frances McNamee) was at times meek, accepting her role as wife to the Duke, and other times wracked with emotion as she fought against her illicit love for Federico and Federico (Nick Barber) spent most of his time in despair at his hopeless position.

Among the courtiers, Simon Scardifield stood out as Federico's aide and he added many of the touches of humour to the play. It was good to have a few quick words with him afterwards to tell him that.

Punishment without Revenge was an imaginative, engaging and beautiful play. I was so impressed that I booked to see the other two plays in the series.

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