A randy duke, a stepmother getting over-familiar with her stepson and a brilliantly elaborate murder plot – Laurence Boswell’s revival of Lope de Vega’s 1631 revenge tragedy is a darkly polished treat. Part of the Arcola’s Spanish Golden Age repertory season, it steams ahead in a swirl of fervid melodrama, sly humour and court intrigue.
To prevent his title from falling into the hands of grasping relatives, the philandering Duke of Ferrara marries Cassandra, the Duchess of Mantua, in order to produce an heir. He’s worried his much-loved illegitimate son Federico won’t get on with her. But the exact opposite happens, as the pair embark on a torrid affair that threatens the reputation of the court.
The play’s title, of course, is Vega winking at us. It ends up being all about revenge, just executed to appear otherwise. Mark Bailey’s gleaming black set is a striking backdrop to a world of glittering opulence and murky moral reflection, where perception is everything. The sharpness of Meredith Oakes’s new translation makes this even clearer.
The cast play beautifully to the heightened tenor of it all, from William Hoyland’s thunderous Duke to Nick Barber’s overwrought Federico, endlessly comparing himself to doomed figures from Greek myth. As Cassandra, Frances McNamee offers a vivid mix of dignity, desperation and frustrated sensuality.
The play’s rich excess sometimes threatens to become indigestible, and a blaringly ominous soundtrack sees some scenes veer into daytime soap opera. But a hilarious Simon Scardifield salts the seething stew of emotions as Federico’s baffled steward, Batin, while Boswell’s assured direction keeps things brisk, crisp and highly engaging.
By Tom Wicker