The Spanish Tragedy, Arcola, London<br/>Annie Get Your Gun, Young Vic, London<br/>Twelfth Night, Courtyard, Stratford-Upon-Avon

A rarely staged Elizabethan classic that influenced Shakespeare returns to the stage and leaves it soaked with blood and gore

Reviewed,Kate Bassett
Sunday 25 October 2009 00:00 BST

Is there a word in our language for gouging out your own tongue? Linguectomy, perhaps? But that's too clinical for Dominic Rowan's ferocious self-mutilation, playing the grief-maddened father, Hieronimo, in Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy.

It's a screech-inducing sort of treat to see this legendary, yet rarely staged Elizabethan classic. It sparked an avid fad for revenge dramas and strongly influenced Shakespeare – most strikingly in Hamlet. But it hasn't enjoyed a major London revival for a quarter of a century.

No one could call it easy viewing. Doublethink's modern-dress production portrays a brutal world: a Stygian corridor of power run by Machiavellian apparatchiks in designer suits. And in the gruesome finale, Hieronimo avenges his murdered son, Horatio, by a devious ruse, throwing his judicial career to the dogs.

He stages a theatrical divertissement at the palace, invites Horatio's blasé killers to take the starring roles, and orchestrates an extremely nasty end for them, under the guise of playacting. One of his enemies is slowly throttled, writhing in a corner, while the other – stabbed – falls to his knees in a spray of blood-red ribbons and a seeping pool of gore.

Mitchell Moreno's directing – if sometimes derivative – is electrifying in the plays-within-the-play. On press night, the audience alternated between yelps of nervous laughter and horrified gasps as Rowan's Hieronimo – arrested but refusing to plead guilty – committed suicide, puncturing his brain with an office Biro (in case you're wondering, he jabbed it up his nose).

The major snag is that Kyd's whole plot is bewilderingly Byzantine, not helped by textual cuts, and several of the young cast gabble their lines. Still, Rowan is scintillating when he hits his stride, letting furious violence explode through the blank-faced diplomacy of a civil servant.

Don't go expecting a bloodbath at the end of Annie Get Your Gun. Everyone seems keen to hail Richard Jones's staging of this corny Broadway musical as startlingly revisionist. So one might imagine that Irving Berlin's pistol-packing, Wild West heroine (with additional dialogue by April de Angelis) is going to take the bull by the horns at last, and use Frank – her tiresomely chauvinist beau – for target practice. But heck no, she still lets him win, faking incompetence in their final shooting competition just to massage his ego.

Scrawny and endlessly gurning in the title role, Jane Horrocks merely pulls a cartoon grimace as she kowtows. Personally, this Annie just got my goat. Some will deem revolutionary both Jones's 1940s setting and the pointedly ironic spin put on dodgy "Red Indian" gags.

Nevertheless, the film sequence seems bizarrely dimwitted when Annie globetrots as a showbiz sharp shooter. She is seen, in mock vintage newsreels, curling her lip when given a medal by Hitler, yet apparently thinking one from Stalin is fine. It's clearly not just the Kremlin who want to revamp his reputation.

Granted, Berlin's songs are catchy, not least "There's No Business Like Show Business", and Julian Ovenden's Frank is a hunk with a vibrant singing voice. But his cheesy smitten acting rings hollow. You know something's wrong when you'd rather spend the evening with the managerial sidekick, John Marquez's amusingly spivvy Charlie. Whittled down to four pianos, the slimline musical arrangements pleasingly evoke a saloon bar, and Ultz's shallow, wide-screen set is stylish. A model Colorado desert rolls by on a conveyor belt. There's barely room to break into a dance, however. Jones's troupe line up and swing their toes in synch. Not a blast.

Gregory Doran's new production of Twelfth Night – with Richard Wilson as Malvolio – is also mildly disappointing. Wilson seems like perfect casting. In black breeches and gaiters, with that hangdog face, supercilious eyebrow, and sour plummy voice, Lady Olivia's pompous steward is surely a direct ancestor of Victor Meldrew. But the over-familiar mannerisms leave you hankering for a more surprising take. That said, what's touching is this Malvolio's romantic vulnerability, and his frailty – ageing before your eyes when he's cruelly humiliated.

Doran himself is full of great ideas. Shakespeare's Illyria is a cultural melting pot, cleverly shifted to the early 19th century. This is the era when Europe's Napoleonic wars meant English travellers, embarking on their Grand Tour, ventured further East into Greece, Turkey, Syria or Lebanon.

Surviving their shipwreck, Nancy Carroll's effortlessly boyish, cross-dressed Viola/Cesario and her twin brother, Sebastian – in matching green tailcoats – wander through a market full of African and Arabic hawkers, bumping into Miltos Yerolemou's Feste – a raggle-taggle gypsy-fool. Jo Stone-Fewings' Orsino fancies himself as a Byronic ex-pat, followed by a band of musicians playing an alluring fusion of Occidental/Oriental music (by Paul Englishby). Meanwhile, Richard McCabe's raddled Sir Toby Belch looks like a Toby jug gone native, English, but puffing on hookahs.

"Youth's a stuff will not endure," sings Yerolemou's Feste, and teasingly pulls a skull from his cloak, like a clown-Hamlet. Twelfth Night is, indeed, delicately aware of life's transience. The trouble with this production is that – in spite of some delightful laughs en route, especially from James Fleet's prancing Andrew Aguecheek – the level of wit, energy and poignancy keeps drooping.

'The Spanish Tragedy' (020-7503 1646) to 14 Nov; 'Annie Get Your Gun' (020- 7922 2922) to 2 Jan; 'Twelfth Night' (0844 800 1110) to 21 Nov

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