The Blue Elephant Theatre is a marvellous little place. Tucked away down a side street somewhere between Camberwell, Brixton and Oval, hosting regular workshops for young people and even offering limited free tickets to residents of London SE5 and SE17 postcodes, this is truly a community theatre.
So in the interests of helping the community, here’s a quick run-through of the plot of the Spanish Tragedy – because I urge you to get used to the story before you go and see the Lazarus Theatre Company’s production of it. Balthazar – the son of the defeated Viceroy of Portugal – is the prisoner of the King of Spain’s nephew, Lorenzo – even though he was defeated by Horatio, a Spanish nobleman. The Royal family decides Balthazar should marry Lorenzo’s sister, Bel-imperia. However, although he is in love with her, she despises him because he killed her former lover. Instead, she falls in love with Horatio – partly, it is true, to annoy Balthazar. So Lorenzo and Balthazar decide to have Bel-imperia’s new boyfriend killed – and kill him they do, storming in on the couple as they are in full throes of some very vocal love-making.
Horatio’s father and mother, Hieronimo and Isabella, discover the body of their son. Hieronimo vows revenge and contrives to stage a play before the court, which will allow him to murder Lorenzo and Balthazar in front of the King. In the end, the whole court that goes down, along with Hieronimo himself, in a brutal bloodbath.
Thomas Kyd’s Elizabethan drama is not easy by any means – plus the language is, obviously, very Elizabethan, and many of the scenes are long and talky. And here, even with energetically choreographed chorus pieces by director Ricky Dukes – and the presumably considerable cuts that have gone to condense this into 100 minutes – it required a certain amount of concentration to focus on what was happening, particularly in a warm theatre made warmer with the amount of dry ice that wafted about from act 1 scene 1 on. The young actors were hardworking and earnest, but this play is unforgiving of the remotest lack of polish. There was a bit too much pacing back and forth from several of the actors, too much reliance on heavily intoned speeches, and rather a lot of collapsing on the floor and tearing at one’s breast – and that was a lot more noticeable than it would have been in a lighter play.
Even so, much of the production was excellent – and some cast members outstanding. In particular Roseanna Morris making – amazingly – her professional debut as the King of Spain. There was something of Margaret Thatcher in her clipped, booming delivery. Her portrayal of a naïve and over-complacent monarch – particularly in the final scene of the ‘play within the play’ – was superb. The marionette-like dance by the entire cast singing a macabre song summing up Bel-imperia’s story, with Morris’s childish clapping on the sidelines as she shrieked “Kill kill kill kill”, was truly chilling and the best scene of the performance by far.
The lighting was inspired – moody washes, carefully thought out shadows and sepia colours, that were constantly atmospheric. The choreography was smart, slick and never overwhelming, with the group scenes – many designed to look like drama warm-up games to keep up the ‘play within a play’ theme – being the moments when the cast really came into their own.
This is a brave project by the Lazarus Theatre Company. Some of it doesn’t work – but much of it does, extremely well. For that they deserve huge credit.