Considered by many to be to Spain what Shakespeare is to England, there’s no denying that Lope de Vega is a powerful wordsmith. His use of the Spanish language in El castigo sin venganza is poetic and passionate, but how would an English version of the play compare?
Happily, this translation by Meredith Oakes is unmatched and possibly improves on the suitability of Punishment Without Revenge for a modern audience by enhancing the comedy of this dark tragedy…
Federico, the illegitimate son of the womanising Duke of Ferrara, unknowingly falls in love with his future stepmother, Cassandra. Although she returns his love, their passionate affair can only lead to tragedy. Yet how can the Duke have justice without forsaking his own honour?
Directed by Laurence Boswell, this production has all the elements of a perfect play: comedy, drama and tragedy. Acting is unwaveringly strong from each member of the cast and the words are delivered with passion, clarity and a deep understanding.
The first monologue from Cassandra (Frances McNamee) is worthy of a standing ovation as we see her truly pained and lament her confusion and horror at the feelings she has for her son-in-law Federico (Nick Barber).
Barber too is deeply possessed by his character’s traits and transforms from a noble count to a lovesick fool, wracked with forbidden desire.
Most of the comedy is delivered by faithful servant Batin (Simon Scardifield), who is ever sincere and deadpan with his comic lines. Meanwhile we see William Hoyland as the Duke switch between loving father, neglectful husband and wronged man.
The stage is almost bare, but the Arcola Theatre has many secrets that allow the actors to appear and reappear from all parts of the stage within seconds. Costumes are magnificent, perhaps almost too grand for the simplicity of the set, whilst sound effects are discreet, but help to accentuate the setting.
Passionate, poetic and polished, but remaining true to this masterpiece of the Spanish Golden Age, this is a fantastic production, and the drama of Act II (whilst it feels a little rushed) leaves the audience holding their breath until the last minute.
Punishment Without Revenge plays at the Arcola Theatre until 14 March 2014
Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes on 10th February 2014