Punishment Without Revenge 1631
(El Castigo Sin Venganza)
Lope de Vega
Translated by Meredith Oakes
Directed by Laurence Boswell
Bath Theatre Royal
Friday 27th September 2013, evening
I was slightly worried by the advertised support of the Spanish Embassy after the dire Spanish-government sponsored “Forests” earlier in the year at the Barbican, but at least this is a classic, though I’m not sure why ‘1631’ has become part of the title.
The set is a black and gold box surrounding the tiny, intimate stage, with a balcony along the top. With corners, two side entrances, a double door at the back revealing an inner stage, there are five routes of entry and they use them all at high speed, scrolling through the short scenes with plenty of opportunity built in for lots of essential eavesdropping.
The play is hard to do, with all that Latin passion, sincere appeals to God, fear of damnation, Iberian terror of loss of honour and bloodthirsty revenge, but this cast give a masterclass in this sort of acting. The Spanish, like the English, thought it best to set this sort of tragedy away from home in Italy.
Briefly, the Duke of Ferrara is a randy old goat with a beloved illegitimate son, Federico. The Duke decides that it is time for him to marry to beget an heir and avoid the disorder and war when he dies, and grasping relatives inevitably challenge Federico’s right to succeed. Federico is sent off to collect the Duke’s bride-to-be, Cassandra, the daughter of the Duke of Mantua, and travels with his servant, Batin. Lo and behold, Cassandra’s carriage gets stuck in a river, Federico rescues her, and Batin rescues her maid, Lucrecia. Federico finds himself strangely moved by his future stepmother and the attraction is mutual. Key heaving bosoms and much angst. Do they have the hots for each other? Understatement of the (17th) century.
Cassandra & Federico
Fast forward a month. The Duke has married Cassandra, as was his duty, but only spent the one night with her, before returning to his licentious whoring around Ferrara all night. Poor Federico, consumed by a love for his new stepmother which he dare not declare is a dishevelled Hamlet figure in white shirt. Cassandra is also consumed with unspoken passion. Just to complicate matters, Federico and his cousin Aurora were always thought to be an item, and Aurora is mightily put out by Federico’s obvious passion for Cassandra. A manly military Mantuan marquis (try saying that fast) called Carlos woos Aurora, but to her surprise and despair, Federico isn’t jealous.
Federico and Batin
The Duke is called to go off to serve the Pope in a war, leaving Federico in charge of the state. Cassandra makes a wonderfully impassioned complaint about the mistreatment of women. The first half ends when after much panting, protesting, fear of eternal damnation etc, Federico picks up Cassandra in his arms and love blossoms.
Part two sees the Duke return from the wars, but not to the whores. He is a changed man, now chaste and holy having slaughtered a few Lombardians in the Pope’s name, and perhaps having had his sword blessed. He is wanting to take up with his wife who he had so ignored. Ah, but a letter reveals that Federico and Cassandra have been at it like rabbits (not the actual words). The Duke listens from a balcony to prove their treacherous romance is true. Federico pretends to be after cousin Aurora, hoping to put his dad, the Duke, off the scent, only compounding his perfidy. The Duke hatches a plan to tie up Cassandra, then put a cloth over her. He tells Federico to run a sword through the treacherous enemy in the next room who has a cloth covering him. OK, that is a tad contrived, even for 1631. Never mind, Federico slays Cassandra, the Duke makes sure he realizes what he has done, then calls the guards and Marquis Carlos, telling them Federico murdered Cassandra because she was pregnant with the heir who will take his place in line of succession. The Marquis goes off and kills Federico, The inner stage opens and reveals the dead lovers strewn about in tableau. He is strewn across her in a La Pieta pose … her being his stepmother, of course. This, says the Duke, is justice … Some translation titles are ‘justice without revenge’ rather than ‘punishment’ though I’m sure the translation of ‘castigo’ was carefully considered.
Justice? Well, possibly in 17th century Inquisition Spain it was. It is incredibly difficult to bring all this off with aplomb, but they do. Nick Barber as Federico and Francis McNamee as Cassandra are excellent together. Never have bosoms heaved so passionately! Both also look the part. The modern audience has identified with the lovers totally. One wonders if they did in Madrid in 1631, or whether they nodded piously and opined that they had it coming. Simon Scardifield is the laconic servant, Batin, and has all those tortuous 17th century clown lines, and makes every one of them work. He’s constantly snacking, and the first scene where he meets Lucrecia and produces a touch of tapas for her from various pockets is hilarious. William Hoyland is the vengeful and outraged Duke to perfection.
Cassandra and Lucrecia
It’s superbly directed and costumed too. It’s from such a different cultural mindset but they make it all make sense. The translation has to draw a fine line. It is in modern English, but also has to so carry many classical references by the characters. It is hard to talk about Phoebus and Icarus without resorting to an inflated cod- Shakespearean tone, but the script hits just the right level. Clear, modern English throughout, and the temptation to slip in a few 21st century expressions for laughs is resisted.
We tacked this on to the Henry VI: Three Plays presentation because we were staying over night. As so often with surprise decisions we enjoyed it more than any of the parts of Henry VI.
Annoying. It’s for all three plays in the Spanish season, and we’re only seeing the one. It has no synopsis. It has vague notes on Spanish drama in boxes, but not really next to the plays they relate to. Very poor.