The Spanish Golden Age season is playing at the Theatre Royal (Bath), Belgrade Theatre (Coventry) and East London’s quirky little Arcola Theatre, where I saw one third of the season: Meredith Oakes’s translation of Punishment Without Revenge by one of the key playwrights of the Golden Age, Lope De Vega.
Punishment Without Revenge is a play about honour and forbidden love, with dark moments and spontaneous humour. The Duke of Ferrara has lived a long life, and hopes his only son Federico will succeed him once he is gone, to carry on the family name long after by marrying and having heirs. Federico listens to his father’s wishes and marries the Duchess of Mantua, yet never succeeds in loving her, as he shockingly falls for the last person his father had imagined: his stepmother.
The set of polished black glass surrounded by an outline of gold gives a sinister feeling of being inside a royal tomb, as we uneasily watch Federico struggle to keep his honour, while ironically still trying to steal his father’s young wife away. This play is tense to say the least, and it is hard work trying to enjoy the flowery “dark and thrilling drama”, sitting on edge and waiting for the tension to be broken by the few gags, which are presented well by the eclectic cast. Punishment Without Revenge is definitely not one of the best of Lope De Vega’s 400 plays. It does seem to have a little bit of charm within the twisted, dark storyline, yet this production fails in reaching the story’s potential. The blocking of scenes is chaotic, and despite the valuable sinister effect of the extremely dark set, it seems meaningless in higher energy parts of the play, which could be one of the reasons there is often a monotonous atmosphere.
Despite the disorder of the staging and some snore-worthy moments, some actors are very good at embracing this tiring production: for example, the curious Simon Scardifield who plays Batin, Federico’s servant, and the bewitching Hedydd Dylan, who plays the stepmother with alluring effect –but not enough to make the play much more interesting. I really hope the other two plays of the Spanish Golden Age season – Don Gil and the Green Breeches and A Lady of Little Sense – have more to offer the audience than Punishment Without Revenge.
Punishment Without Revenge is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 14 March. For tickets and more information, see the Arcola Theatre website.