Tamar's Revenge, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

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The Independent Culture

The lust-demented Amnon (Matt Ryan) is literally going up the wall with frustration. He hurls himself at the brick background of the Swan Theatre stage like some frenzied human skateboard. His sandalled feet are beaded with blood, and the grazes are not cosmetic. Amnon is one of the sons of the House of David in Tamar's Revenge, the 1624 Tirso de Molina play that is the latest in the RSC's Spanish Golden Age season.

The lust-demented Amnon (Matt Ryan) is literally going up the wall with frustration. He hurls himself at the brick background of the Swan Theatre stage like some frenzied human skateboard. His sandalled feet are beaded with blood, and the grazes are not cosmetic. Amnon is one of the sons of the House of David in Tamar's Revenge, the 1624 Tirso de Molina play that is the latest in the RSC's Spanish Golden Age season.

Despite its various Shakespearean affinities, this could never be confused with a product of the secular Globe Theatre. The source is Biblical. Yet while the material - Amnon's vicious rape of his sister Tamar and the family unravelling afterwards - derives from the Second Book of Samuel, the Old Testament setting is a displacement technique. The preoccupations are Spanish: there's the characteristic obsession with honour and there's evident anxiety about royal succession.

Simon Usher's sharp, spare production finds its own wry equivalents for this refracted quality. For example, the sons of David who return for a ten-day truce from besieging the Ammonites, have, as their basic uniform, the grey short-sleeved shirts and trousers of English sixth-formers. It's a touch that emphasizes their status as an emotionally immature, rivalrous pack whose behaviour is not notably improved by the ban on entering their father's harem of voluptuous, war-trophy wives.

Played on a bare, bleached stage, the drama unfolds under bright, unvaried lighting. This is true even in the nocturnal garden scene when Amnon falls in love with the singing voice of a young woman much later identified as his sister Tamar (Katherine Kelly sexily clad in black leather bra and miniskirt). The effect of groping confusion in the dark is created by a well-lit game of blindman's bluff. There's a disturbing mutual arousal in the sequences where the as-yet-unwitting Tamar agrees to play the role of the Ammonite princess whom the pining Amnon (a compellingly manic, if rhetorically over-rushed, Matt Ryan) claims to have lost when his own forces devastated her town.

Not that this in any way mitigates the horror of the eventual violation. It's one of the least lovely aspects of the honour code that a wronged woman is as much a liability to be hidden as an injustice to be redressed. As she is packed off to a farm, Tamar scathingly remarks that it is better to live among animals, if you have lost your honour among men: "At least in such a company I shall know/ I cannot lose my honour yet again."

Marred by crudely roaring performances and a bunch of some of the least-convinced rustics you've ever encountered at the sheep-shearing, the second half of the production has a less certain aim. But the play - with vain golden-boy brother Absalom (James Chalmers) avenging Tamar from dynastic ambition and patriarch David (John Stahl) clinging to a sentimental, self-serving image of his rapist son - pushes to a conclusion calculatedly too compromised to offer any catharsis.

To 2 October (0870 609 1110)

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