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Centuries-old Spanish Tragedy explores timely themes of justice and revenge

The Spanish Tragedy was written in the 1500s, and in Dan Bray's adaptation is set in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, but resonates today on multiple levels. The Villain's Theatre production opens at The Bus Stop Theatre on Tuesday.
Collen MacIsaac, left, is Lorenzo and Leah Pritchard is Balthazar, in the The Villain's Theatre production of The Spanish Tragedy, at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax, Tuesday to Sunday. (TIM KROCHAK / Local Xpress)

The Spanish Tragedy was written in the 1500s, but when Dan Bray thinks about the play known as the original revenge tragedy, he can't help but think of No Country For Old Men.

"The main character is confronted with evil and doesn't understand how you can do these things to people," says Bray comparing the centuries-old play he is directing for Villain's Theatre to the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers movie.

The Spanish Tragedy investigates the price of allegiance, the cost of vengeance and the nature of justice, say the producers of the play that runs Tuesday to Sunday at the Bus Stop Theatre.

"It's about an old judge Hieronimo whose son is murdered by two evil princes and he struggles not only to seek justice, but with the decision to pursue revenge," explains Bray, who adapted the famous play by Thomas Kyd into a "very sharp 1.5-hour version."

"What do you do when you've spent your life trying to ensure people get justice and then you yourself are denied justice?"

"It represents how a system can continue to function but can be corrupt," adds Colleen MacIsaac, Villain's artistic producer.

"The system can fail you even when it's functioning, the outcome is not always just," agrees Bray, who spent his third summer acting with Shakespeare by the Sea this year.

The actor-director-playwright says The Spanish Tragedy is very seldom done because it has a very large cast and is a very long story.

The Villain's Theatre version is being staged with six non-male actors. With two exceptions, everyone in the cast and crew is female or non-binary.

"This play is not inherently about gender, which is surprising as so many of the plays of this period are," notes Bray.

Leah Pritchard stars as Balthazar, Rachel Hastings as Pedringano, Sarah Deller as Bel-imperia, Madeleine Tench as Horatio, Katherine Tufts is Hieronimo and MacIsaac is the villain, Lorenzo.

Newcomer Tufts, who is a mother, is phenomenal as the broken-hearted father, says MacIsaac.

"When you watch her do her scenes, it's heart-rending."

MacIsaac describes Lorenzo as an evil tyrant, "who is working with his own sense of justice."

She says Lorenzo believes that "as long as you can buy people off, you're in the clear even if you end up killing them, you don't have to be accountable."

"Lorenzo oversees what everyone is doing, but the ways he does it are very dubious. He has his eye on the kingdom and wants to secure peace, but the ways he has done it are very self-centred," adds Bray.

"Hieronimo doesn't understand how (Lorenzo) can murder people and be evil, he struggles with it. He's older and wasn't in the war and struggles to make sense of it all as the world changes."

The Spanish Tragedy, written in the late 1500s by Kyd, who was friends with Christopher Marlowe, is said to have inspired Shakespeare's revenge tragedies Hamlet and Titus Andronicus.

"People have been receptive to our plays like the Duchess of Malfi and The Revengers Tragedy and it is neat to go back to where it all began," says Bray.

His version of The Spanish Tragedy takes place in the 1930s.

"I was inspired by images of the Spanish civil war, which was notoriously brutal."

"It is set in Spain in the 1930s, was written in the 1500s and still resonates. The situations the characters find themselves in thematically are so strikingly recognizable and have so much to teach us," concludes MacIsaac.

Alluding to the recent U.S. election, she says she believes The Spanish Tragedy is becoming even more relevant and hopes attending will prove cathartic for for those disheartened by current events.

Shows are nightly Nov. 15 to 20 at 8 p.m. at the Bus Stop Theatre, 2203 Gottingen St., Halifax, with 2 p.m. weekend matinees and a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Wednesday, Nov. 16. Click here for tickets. 


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