Theatre review: Punishment Without Revenge, Ustinov Studio, Bath

 

No English director is a better advocate for the glories of Spanish Golden Age drama than Laurence Boswell – as he proves once again with the richly enterprising three-play repertory he has masterminded at Bath. The tragic centrepiece of the season is his darkly glittering and deeply engrossing production of Punishment Without Revenge (1631) – generally reckoned to be one of the greatest of the four hundred surviving theatrical works by the astoundingly prolific Lope de Vega. 

Watching Spanish plays from this period, I find myself profoundly grateful to have been born into a culture that has traditionally taken a sceptical view of rigid codes of honour –  in the easy-going, pragmatic manner of Falstaff (“What is honour? A word”). Lope's tragedy dramatises, with fierce insight, the inhumanity of the code's inexorable laws and the vicious lengths to which to which people will go in order, technically, to save face. 

The Duke of Ferrara (excellent William Hoyland), a notorious womaniser, hopes that one day his beloved illegitimate son, Federico, will succeed him.  But he bows to public pressure for an undisputed heir and marries the beautiful young Cassandra. This is just a front, though. The Duke instantly reverts to debauchery and, while he is away at the wars, his unhappy bride and her stepson are left struggling to master an overpowering mutual attraction. 

Using a pithy and pointed new translation by Meredith Oakes, Boswell's production has a feel of both Velazquez and Racine – Mark Bailey's handsome set of polished black glass and gold  accruing the atmosphere of a mausoleum. As the lovers, Nick Barber and Frances McNamee palpitate and agonise with impressive seriousness, the light relief left to Simon Scardifield's long-suffering servant who has a talent for getting to the point more quickly than his emoting high-minded master. 

The young pair are sympathetic because, at first, they put up such heroic resistance to their forbidden passion. And even when the need for concealment forces Federico into lies that create fresh spasms of jealousy and play fast and loose with the affections of Katie Lightfoot's luminous Aurora, the couple still come across as morally superior to the mode of retribution. For the code demands that the dishonour to the Duke be kept secret; he, therefore, has to engineer a scenario of murder-by-proxy in which he's able to pose as a minister for justice rather than a private revenger. Boswell's production brings home the full grotesque force of this casuistical charade. Highly recommended.

To 21 December; 01225 448844 – the season transfers to Arcola in London in January 2014 and to the Belgrade, Coventry in March.

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