Readers may notice that the background to this blog depicts a scene from The Spanish Tragedy.* It’s chosen, partly, because it’s a nice picture (insofar as an image of a hanging can be described as nice), but partly to recognize that a blog about Renaissance drama must pay due reverence to Kyd’s seminal play. Accordingly, I felt, despite my negligible acting experience, I couldn’t pass up the chance to be in a staged reading of it. So, this week, in performances at The Shakespeare Institute and at the University of Birmingham, I played the Ghost of Don Andrea.
I wanted to play Don Andrea because I like that he is both integral and detached. On the one hand, the play is ostensibly about his revenge and, in our production, he was visible at all times, watching amongst the audience at The Shakespeare Institute, and at the front row of the lecture theatre at Birmingham. He opens the play with a long, knotty, challenging speech and he is there at the close, preparing to extend the ‘endless tragedy’ of his enemies by acting as their judge in Hell. On the other hand, he spends relatively little time centre stage, and he only interacts directly with one other character: the mysterious Revenge. I enjoyed the challenge of tackling some of his difficult speeches and liked thinking about the nature of his relationship with Revenge; I also got to see the play from a perspective which, while not quite equivalent to that of an audience member, was nonetheless quite different to that of the other members of the cast (Revenge excepted). I’m going to try and make sense of some of my experiences rehearsing, acting, and watching the play on the production’s official blog (which you can access here) but I wanted, first, to make some general observations about what was, to me, the most bizarre scene of the play, in which the Ghost tries to rouse Revenge from his slumber.
By the time Revenge figuratively or literally falls asleep, Don Andrea has already shown his irritation at Revenge’s circuitous methods. He’s initially puzzled as to why his enemies end the first act banqueting, and he’s vexed again at the end of the following act by the death of his friend, Horatio. He and Revenge are absent from act three, by far the longest of the play’s four acts, until the final scene, by which point he’s presumably really quite pissed off. In rehearsals, we (Robert Ball, the director, Hannah Hickman, who played Revenge at The Institute, José Pérez Díez, who was Revenge at Birmingham, and I) discussed the extent to which we found this scene comic. The earlier scenes, we thought, might work if played humorously, as there’s something to be said for playing Revenge as increasingly patronising (‘Be still’ he tells the Ghost in 1.5 and 2.6) and Andrea as increasingly bewildered. We toyed with the possibility of a huffy Ghost, trudging petulantly back to his seat to watch the play, but, while I think that could work, it would require a more confident comic performance than I would have been able to muster. Nonetheless, we decided that the sleeping scene is, or can be, funny, and in different ways, both Hannah and José got laughs here. ‘Content thyself, and do not trouble me’ said Hannah’s Revenge, before placing the script over her face and falling back asleep; ‘Awake? For why?’ asked José’s drowsy Revenge, having perturbed us all with his loud snoring. There were a few laughs, too, at the dumb-show, one of several performances within the play which require their authors to gloss the events for their auditors.
Yet, by the end of Revenge’s explanation of the dumb-show, Don Andrea is apparently calmed and contented: ‘Sufficeth me; thy meaning’s understood’, he says, before returning to his seat to watch the the final act. Here, I felt, was a tonal shift, and my instinct was to try and play the line solemnly. Out of confusion the Ghost gleans some degree of understanding and comfort. If his attitude is shared by the audience, who, at this point, might equally desire the closure of revenge, then it may be a peculiarly disturbing moment. I don’t necessarily think I transmitted that to my audience, but the play certainly transmitted it to me.
*It used to, before I changed it!