More matter, less art

'The Spanish Tragedy' is supposed to be an inferior precursor to 'Hamlet'. But, juxtaposed at Stratford, Kyd out-performs the Bard.
Click to follow
Often cited as an important precursor of Hamlet in histories of drama, Kyd's Spanish Tragedy all too rarely crops up on the stage. We should be grateful to the RSC, then, for making it possible, this season, to see these two revenge dramas side-by-side. You'd think that Kyd's play would be at an overwhelming disadvantage in such a pairing exercise. Shakespeare's handling of the features they share - the vengeance-seeking ghost; the isolated, temporising hero who needs to verify the information he's given; the madness, real and feigned; the use of a play-within-a-play to further the revenge scheme - is far subtler and more penetrating. Kyd, who it's thought also wrote the lost, so-called ur-Hamlet, the principle source of its later namesake, is more journeyman than genius.

Yet Michael Boyd's powerful, provocative, sometimes tricksy production of The Spanish Tragedy in The Swan convinces you that this is a work of strong imaginative integrity which deserves to be seen in its own right. Bringing home the acute difficulty of achieving redress through the proper channels, the play focuses on the painfully ironic case of Hieronimo (Peter Wight), the upright magistrate who has to take the law into his own bloody hands against his son's murderers, protected because of their high birth and their exploitation of Hieronimo's increasingly crazed public behaviour.

It's the play's creepy achievement to show all the action from the perspective of eternity. The characters think they are acting on their own behalf: in fact, we can see that they are being used by the gods to fulfil a design of which they are unconscious. The Spanish Tragedy begins with the ghost of Don Andrea (Patrice Naiambana) who has been allowed to return from the underworld, in the company of Revenge, in order to see how his former mistress Bel-imperia (Siobhan Redmond) will avenge his murder. Here Revenge, a hooded, spectral-voiced figure who paces around the theatre, has to prompt Don Andrea, with some impatience, during his opening speeches, as though this trainee Senecan ghost were not quick enough on the uptake for him.

In Boyd's staging, the ghost does not simply sit through the play as a choric spectator but enters into a much more dynamic relationship with the unfolding action, prowling round and through it as an unpalpable but unsettling presence. Not understanding that all the apparent setbacks - eg the slaughtering of his best friend, Horatio (a wonderfully dignified Tristan Sturrock) - are, in fact, necessary stages towards the completion of his revenge, he throws fits of violent, scenery-endangering frustration.

With a bower where the trees are planks dangling like corpses from meat- hooks and a curtained inner-stage where the characters sit in a row like actors waiting in some purgatorial ante-room to be assigned a part, Tom Piper's design heightens the sense of a world moving to a pre-ordained end. The performances are, for the most part, fine. Peter Wight offers an intriguing portrait of Hieronimo as a tubby, ineffectual nervous wreck. If it makes you wonder what the state of his court can have been like before the strain of the bereavement began to turn his wits, this approach also brings a surprising degree of naturalness and humanity to a role where rhetoric can rule.

The production goes too far at points. At the close, Boyd suggests that the whole nightmare is about to be replayed, this time, with Horatio as Revenge. This idea of endless brutal recycling causes an undeniable shudder, but it's in contradiction of the play Kyd had wrote. Even at its most questionable, the production never left me cold, though, which I'm afraid is what happened during long stretches of Matthew Warchus's main-stage account of Hamlet, starring a likeable but unsearching Alex Jennings.

As an antidote to Kenneth Branagh's dire, interminably inclusive movie, the production may win friends, though the cuts and restructurings here do not, I feel, result in an overall dramatic gain. Skipping the opening scene on the battlements, the production begins with Jennings tipping out a jar of ashes while, projected behind him, there's sentimental black- and-white movie footage of Hamlet as a little boy playing with his father and some dogs. In voice-over, we hear Claudius delivering a public speech, the walls then split open and we are at a loud palace party where, in continuous action and often not very probably, much of the early business of the play takes place.

Warchus has cut Fortinbras and that whole political aspect of the piece, so, at the end, it's back to that home-movie footage, with Horatio in voice-over, describing the events of the drama: "... carnal, bloody and unnatural acts, / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters" etc. When this speech is delivered to Fortinbras, it becomes a comment on the limited perception of Hamlet's rival - all he'd be able to understand about the profound experience just undergone. Recited to nobody, as here, it seems - like the production - to be a case of the play selling itself short.

'Hamlet', RSC Stratford in rep; 'The Spanish Tragedy', RSC Swan in rep. Booking: 01789 295623