Browse reviews

Fringe Online 2020

Low Down

Directed by Conor Baum these scratch performances involve a settled pool of actors working through the entire Shakespearean canon and apocrypha, as well as plays Shakespeare had a hand in. Some props are deployed.


The first modern British tragedy? The first certainly that crackles with a glittering torque of plot, counter-plot farce and connivance – convincingly. Gone is the whiff of university masques, sawn-off verse and pointed apostrophe. Here’s a blank verse that sings and a plot that doesn’t sag in the middle.

Thomas Kyd’s younger friend Marlowe might have blazed first with Tambourlaine in 1587 but everyone, most of all Shakespeare, learned from Kyd. Who – as Elizabethan scholar (and much else) Martin Seymour-Smith noted – was a dramatist of genius.

As dramatist, no-one comes close till Shakespeare. Kyd (1558-1594) invented the revenge tragedy, indeed Elizabethan tragedy itself. And as blank-verse innovator, Kyd showed how to freight it with moment and not get lost in cloudy bombast. No jade gets pampered long here. A long play, but nothing long. Like one of his few plots, Kyd was tortured after Marlowe’s death because of ‘mixed’ papers in their rooms, and didn’t long survive.

And The Spanish Tragedy (from 1592) is here in the One Fell Swoop schedule because Shakespeare might have retouched some scenes. OFS under Conor Baum show increasing confidence in fleetness, blank-verse dispatch and grasp of late Elizabethan dramaturgy – as it moves inexorably to the Jacobean era. The lockdown company’s cohered into a corps of actors with a few new faces, and a way of playing all their own. Sort of zoom by jowl.

There’s a felicity through all Kyd’s play; as well as an encrustation of bad Latin Italian and musty Spanish, which the cast – notably Seth Morgan – deliver with memorable dispatch. Pity it skirts gibberish. But it sounds good. And like most cod-Latin, casts spells.

Talking of which, we’re in ghost-mode since Don Andreas (that was) is both prologue and commentator, a role like Waldorf’s in the Muppets or Theseus’ asides in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Robert Cohen’s time-drawn Ghost (he’s also First Watchman and a memorably laconic Hangman) sets the scene without himself. Cohen’s tone here nears the regretful rasp of a satyr. He was beloved of the King’s daughter Bel-Imperia, ‘In secret I possess’d a worthy dame… but in the harvest of my summer joys/Death’s winter nipped the blossom of my bliss’ since he goes to fetch glory and dies for it. Twit. The fatal squabble of that luckless princess’s admirers fuels the engine of revenge. Cue –

Ghost’s sole company Jenny Rowe as Revenge (she’s Second Watchman and Jacques but memorably the Spanish King). Rowe vocally jabs Cohen and persuades him she’ll be Revenge. There’s badinage throughout as at one point Don Andreas/Ghost kicks Revenge awake, she’s been sleeping he claims. Nope. This whole commentary/fourth wall was a strand of Elizabethan writing inherited from all those mouthy personifications. Here, you can see the beginnings of integration. And as we know vengeful ghosts got to be a trend.

Apart from a small sub-plot smear in the Portuguese court (dealt with, the bad end unhappily) we’re in the Spanish court where Rowe’s King dispenses baffled justice as others dispense with it altogether. This includes his villainous son Conor Baum’s Lorenzo (he’s Second Citizen too) whose stratagems motor the plot. Baum has a gleeful way as complotter of dark ends and being thoroughly nasty, and his fleet, as ever consummate way with Kyd shows the energy of Kyd’s characterisation.

Comparison with earlier dramas show how far he’s come, and Lorenzo is relatively complex: he’s concerned with the show not substance of honour, and his killing of Don Andreas’ best friend Horatio – now Bel-Imperia’s new consoling lover – is about establishing dynasties too. And ruining his sister’s fun, compounded by mewing her up partly so she can’t name him. First though he has to kill of his loyal accomplices just in case. Nothing personal. His main accomplice though the captured Portuguese prince Balthazar, is the one he intends Bel-Imperia should be married to.

John Andrews’ Balthazar (also First Citizen) is almost as nasty. Having responded favourably to his captor Horatio, and enlarged by him, he repays his vanquisher’s gallantry by conspiring in his murder, hanging him in an arbor and stabbing him as Bel-Imperia’s bundled off. He has some unctuous lines and Andrews relishes a sort of dark County Paris, someone happy to enjoy a forced marriage when he’s joined to kill off a social inferior (only to princes mind). It’s a neat study in ingratitude, duplicity and the mirror opposite of hapless Horatio’s conduct.

Rosanna Bini’s core role is Bel-Imperia – she vanishes mewed up by her brother in the middle of the play, so Bini plays a Servant too. Bini enjoys the early warmth and frolicking and the later pained interlude of imprisonment where she writes what seems a letter in her own blood. Bini as usual manages the sentiment of an irritatingly passive role but there’s a pay-off.

There’s some discussion over the extent of sexual activity here. The lines above and Bel-Imperia’s willingness to lie down in quiet for an hour with her new love suggest – remarkably – sexual desire and experience, especially since ‘shame’ hangs about her. Being a princess means a veil’s drawn over it. Honour killings and imprisonment – one thinks too of The Duchess of Malfi – vaunt their patriarchal nastiness. Don Andreas’ lover is a shuttlecock in power-lay, ever thwarted in her own agency but determined enough to pursue it twice.

Ben Baeza’s warm-blooded Horatio (he’s Third Citizen too) is a burst of sunlight and latterly terror. Baeza’s strong on ardour and confident in delivery.

It’s his father though – Seth Morgan’s Hieronomo – who takes the lion’s share of the work, and T.S. Eliot’s quotes from The Waste Land concern him. Hieronomo’s mad again. The noble martial, Spanish commander, has his own pride as mainstay of Spain and plots revenge, though like Hamlet later, he stays his hand. First he’s not sure of that bloody letter. Quite soon he is, since he intercepts a letter from one of the murderers meshed in his master’s new plot to get rid of him. His circumlocutory methods – including mounting a play – sends echoes and shivers down the years.

Morgan’s magisterial in this role. Not only does he negotiate all the Latin tags that loiter like banana skins left by a hasty dramatist for actors to trip over, he makes these sing. Most though Morgan inhabits the role with a slow winding-up dignity to deliver the force of his indictment through a bloody strategy aided by the wronged Bel-Imperia who’s seemingly consented to marry her lover’s murderer. The recognition scene as she berates Hieronomo for seeming complacency is thrilling and it get a measure of that charge here.

Hieronomo’s well-matched In running and as his wife Isabella played by Kirsty Joy Geddes (also Messenger) also berates him for seeming complacency and raises an arc of grief before – great exit line ‘she runs lunatic’. Geddes returns to a dramatic end, tearing down the arbor. It’s a powerful mad scene giving a woman agency in extremity, a wild permission.

Lexi Zoe Pickett’s regal Castile is succeeded by luckless Serberine one of the two murderers Lorenzo uses and conspires to have killed off. Pickett realizes his hapless venality with a bit of verve, especially when he’s going to get something nasty in a wood.

David Oliver Simmons’ Pedrigano is her original co-conspirator but equally as hapless – and has more to do. Convinced Lorenzo will rescue him he sends that Hieronomo-intercepted letter and chaffs with Justice Hieronomo himself as Morgan then Cohen’s Hangman can’t credit his truculence. It’s the jewel of a cameo, and a delicious scene. Simmons also plays Christophil, Bel-Imperia’s reluctantly sympathetic jailor.

Joanna Rosenfeld’s General enjoys a measured tang of command. Her Ambassador full of import and striking a fine balance of representing the beaten Portuguese and negotiating an advantageous marriage to the Portuguese prince and her Bathazar. She essays Page and memorably an Old Man (Senex) who’s also lost his son. Rosenfeld’s scene here with Morgan, a strange and angry consolation is touching in its humanity, one of Kyd’s flashes of pathos Shakespeare learnt so much from.

Ross Gurney-Randall gets the ripe conniver’s parts Viluppo’s the Portuguese court slanderer of decent Alexandro – Sharon Drain ‘s baffled noble (she’s First Portingal) and they enjoy exchanges. Both enjoy characterful voices. Drain’s range of emphases shades honour and outrage and gets inside the verse.

Gurney-Randall – also Second Portingal and another old man, Bazulto – enjoys the gravely bass-baritone of a venal lord fed on venison. A seasoned Shakespearean with a strong underpinning of historical knowledge and performance practice (like Baum and a few others) he centres his parts, so Bazulto takes on pathos and gravitas.

Rose Marie Shaw’s Don Cyprian or Castile, the King’s brother and luckless father of Lorenzo and Bel-Imperia is a curiously neutral observer of machinations he can’t fathom. Shaw gets a nice baffled dignity and surprise out of him whilst playing a Maid, the temporarily hoodwinked Portuguese Viceroy and finally a Painter: someone who can paint devices, employed strangely by Hieronomo.

Matthew Carrington makes an assured debut with Third Watchman, Pedro – one of Hieronomo’s long-suffering servants – and a rather nosey Boy who funds a box with nothing in it when it should have contained a pardon.

It’s not a bloody farce, but an intricate and clever catastrophe. Hieronomo might have said ‘I limn’d this night piece, and it was my best’ but by then he enacts two extraordinary silencings on himself that no tongue should utter till they’ve full supped on these horrors themselves. A lively swift traversal of a long play, the OFS company are taking flight with the best scratch nights the Elizabethans never had.