There is a film of the life of Lope de Vega, in English The Outlaw¸ but no film could do justice to his extraordinary life. Two wives, one of whom died in childbirth while the other went blind and died mad, several mistresses, innumerable casual encounters before and after he became a priest, several military expeditions as a soldier (he was with the Armada), several children both legitimate and illegitimate, most of whom died young, secretary and general factotum to the Dukes of Alba and Sessa, imprisonment for libel, banishment – and somehow, in and out of this whirlwind, he managed to write 1,800 – that’s not a misprint – 1,800 full-length plays. He once composed five comedies in two weeks. Someone worked out that it was impossible for Bach to have written all that music, because nobody could possibly get that number of notes down on paper in the time. Equally it seems physically impossible to write down that number of words in a lifetime. You wonder when he found time to go to the toilet.

With such an exaltation of quantity over quality, the plays are, to put it mildly, variable. However Punishment without Revenge is one of the best: an intense, brooding and haunted play of court intrigue at the palace of the Duke of Ferrara. The plot is scarcely original: a stepson falling in love with his stepson and usurping the father is as old as Phaedra in Ancient Greece and as recent as Spanking the Monkey. What gives it pungency is the depth of passion which the guilty parties Federico and Cassandra feel, both of love and of guilt. There is a tortuous subplot involving Federico’s spurned fiancée Aurora and a Count who wants her; the accumulated effect of all this plotting is a scathing criticism of the shifts to which love drives people – the lies, the hypocrisies, the heartless use of others.

It would, I think, have been useful to have had more background information in the programme about the social and ideological context in which the play takes place. This is the time of the Counter-Reformation in Spain, of the Inquisition, of St Theresa of Avila and El Greco. Indeed much of the play feels like an animation of the latter’s tortured and seething paintings. In this setting, religious devotion becomes in its intensity a passion as sensuous and forceful as love itself. No matter if you don’t share this view, the language of the play has a vigour and colour which quite carries it off. As a result, the conflict between love and religion is both balanced and so strong as to tear the protagonists apart.

The title is deeply ironic, and on one level the play is a critique of traditional codes of machismo honour. The Duke is a man who has been a cheerful whorer all his life, and continues to be so even as his Bride is on her way to Ferrara to marry him. He claims to be a changed man when he returns from the wars to learn of the affair; but there’s more than a hint that the leopard can never really change his spots. Pots and kettles come to mind when he flies into a rage at the way his son has disgraced him. His dilemma is that any exposure of the disgrace will bring him public humiliation and loss of face. So the lovers’ punishment is really revenge in another guise, and has everything to do with personal pride and nothing to do with religious or moral commandments. It’s a fascinating, ambiguous play which is not afraid to mix comedy with pathos, conversation pieces with thriller elements. It is shot through with dramatic irony, and requires an almost Brechtian distance from the action on the part of the audience.

The play is outside the comfort zone of most audiences, but this intelligent, unfussy production by Laurence Boswell and the committed performances of the cast sell it in the most convincing way. Frances McNamee and Nick Barber push the emotions of the lovers to the limit, playing both religious scruple and erotic love to the hilt. Indeed the sense of supercharged sexual chemistry between the two is palpable, and rarely has portayal of inner conflict been either so extreme or so credible. William Hoyland is an authoritative Duke; Simon Scardifield as the servant/best friend/voice of wisdom treads a fine line between comedy and seriousness in a strangely mannered but effective performance. Meredith Oakes’s translation in free couplets is springy, poetic and very actable.

This is a co-production with the Ustinov Theatre in Bath and the Belgrade, Coventry, which means that there is more money available than for most Fringe productions. It shows particularly in the rich and stiff costumes of Mark Bailey, which stand as a metaphor for the formality and rigour of the Court. There are two other plays in this Spanish Golden Age Season, running in repertory using the same actors till 15th March. If they are anything like as good as this, they will reward your support.

Reviews by Peter Scott-Presland

Charing Cross Theatre

Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris

★★★
Jermyn Street Theatre

Return of the Soldier

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

Eye of a Needle

★★★★
Rosemary Branch Theatre

The Trial of the Jew Shylock

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

In The Heights

★★★★

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this review has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now

The Blurb

As part of our Spanish Golden Age season Punishment without Revenge is a dark and thrilling drama, an audacious blend of unbearable tension and delicious comedy, which both terrifies and delights.

Regarded as the greatest tragedy of the Spanish Golden Age and the finest play of its presiding genius, Lope de Vega, this elegant work is set in the dangerous and glamorous world of Renaissance Italy.

The Duke of Ferrara has lived a wild and unconventional life. An infamous womaniser, his only son, Federico, is a bastard whom he dreams will one day succeed him.

When his subjects demand that he marry and provide them with the stability of a legitimate heir, the proud and beautiful Cassandra, Duchess of Mantua, is sent to be his bride.

But everything does not fall happily into place.

A passionate love develops - but not between the Duke and his Duchess - and, in a culture where honour is the highest virtue, there can be only one outcome.

Most Popular See More

Moulin Rouge! The Musical

From £30.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Pretty Woman: The Musical

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Wicked

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Book of Mormon

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Mamma Mia!

From £18.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Mary Poppins

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets