Lope de Vega’s 1631 tragedy Punishment Without Revenge, performed here in a new adaptation by Meredith Oakes, concerns the story of a father who arranges the murder of his wife and son (by another partner) after his suspicions of their love affair are confirmed.
It’s great to see de Vega revived – author of thousands of plays, of which a mere few hundred survive. His Fuente Ovejuna is on the continent regarded as a classic, whereas here he is almost unheard of. It’s easy to see why, on both counts. This play has an expressionistic feel, a thunderous pace, and strange admixture of religious sentiment and radical politics. In spite of its occasional lyricism, it’s not Shakespeare – it’s more Kyd. This is to it’s credit, but explains why the British theatre going public – who have traditionally assigned emotionalism and vivacity a plebeian, “melodramatic” status – have not taken to it, or to de Vega.
Laurence Boswell’s production is perhaps a little too tepid for so sensual and bloody a romp. We get only a muted sense of the licentiousness of the father – a Duke, whose philandering is the cause of his wife’s discontent and subsequent betrayal. Neither, really, is the relationship between the two lovers, Federico and Cassandra, quite what it is on the page. They describe how they shake with feeling, they announce the becoming of their souls, they defy moral codes and familial ties in order to be with one another etc., and yet with the exception of one frisky set-piece, the relationship portrayed here seems sexless – more stressful than passionate.
If aspects of the performance are a little flat in tone, this isn’t helped by the set – monochrome and spray on sliver, attempting slickness and achieving drabness, a little like the interior of a Volvo. And the dull sobriety of the set isn’t complimented (nor is it remedied) by the soundtrack, which sounds like a Casio keyboard sample circa 1990 with a regal or “majestic” theme.
This aside, Simon Scardifield as Batin was great – off-beat, playful and perverse, he’s obviously an actor for whom text is a tool for invention, not just a code to be cracked. And in spite of reservations about the central relationship, Frances McNamee as Cassandra did an excellent job in helping to convey what was the definite strong point of the production – reclaiming Cassandra as an intelligent and empowered female. Although I think there’s plenty in the text to help form a counter argument (on the intrinsic nature of women, or the immorality of Cassandra’s actions), McNamee’s protestations against the disenfranchisement of her sex were convincing and inspirited.
In short, a strange and engaging play, but a production that is too much lacking in the vim and vigour that characterises both author and text.