In the Belgrade’s B2 studio, there’s a little drama festival going on, a brief season of three Spanish plays written by contemporaries of Shakespeare who are, unaccountably, little known by the general population of Britain.
A LADY OF LITTLE SENSE – Tuesday 1st April, 2014
David Johnston’s translation of Lope de Vega’s La Dama Boba (1613) is sharp and funny, the language updated without being slangy, delivered in an almost throwaway naturalistic style. There is also a lot of rhyming verse, in soliloquies for example – a challenge for any translator. The sparkling script is brought to life by a company of energetic actors, directed to frenetic activity by Laurence Boswell.
The plot has similarities to The Taming of the Shrew: a wealthy man seeks to marry off his daughters, bestowing the larger dowry on the beautiful but dim-witted Finea. This sum attracts suitors who are quickly distracted by her sister Nise’s intelligence.
As the seemingly untameable Finea, Frances McNamee hurls herself around the stage with abandon but the extremes that she goes to somehow endear us to the character, and so when romantic intrigues beset her, we feel for her. It is a remarkable performance, the beating heart of this madcap comedy.
McNamee is supported by an ensemble who populate the stage with a wealth of funny characters (the cheeky servant – a splendid Hedydd Dylan; the dancing teacher – the marvellous Jim Bywater…) Nick Barber is flamboyant and given to grand stylised gestures as mercenary suitor Laurencio, whose plotting drives the storyline; he is nicely contrasted by Simon Scardifield’s sensitive Liseo. Scardifield is a fine physical comedian although he does need to watch he doesn’t drop his voice too much in certain speeches. In the B2 studio, he can just about get away with it – although I was only five rows from the stage.
A delightful couple of hours which includes a spot of flamenco dancing, A Lady of Little Sense runs like a well-oiled contraption thanks to the energy of the talented, hard-working cast. It’s a life-affirming comedy that proves there is still mileage in the old conventions and devices of yesteryear.
PUNISHMENT WITHOUT REVENGE – Wednesday 2nd April, 2014
Don’t you just hate that awkward moment when you fall in love with the woman you rescue from a road traffic accident and she turns out to be your dad’s new fiancée?
So begins Lope de Vega’s Punishment Without Revenge, a tale of forbidden love, honour and betrayal. Son and stepmother do what they can but ultimately they are powerless to resist. They succumb to their passion, are discovered and dealt with. It’s a revenge tragedy that doesn’t end well for anyone. De Vega’s characters are rounded out from their stock types and our modern-day sensibilities don’t condemn the illicit lovers as much as his contemporaries would have.
Nick Barber and Frances McNamee (who has rocketed towards the top of the list of my favourite actors) are remarkably good as the transgressing lovers. Barber’s Federico is a sensitive soul, mooning about like Hamlet, suffering the pangs of what he initially thinks is unrequited love. McNamee commands respect as Duchess Cassandra, tortured and vulnerable. The scenes between these two are electric.
They are supported by this excellent ensemble. William Hoyland is powerful as the wronged husband and father, and Katie Lightfoot, forever in white frocks, adds depth to her role as Aurora, trying her own hand at romantic intrigue.
DON GIL OF THE GREEN BREECHES – Wednesday 3rd April, 2014
Tirso de Molina’s comedy is an amusing confection, a kind of ‘revenge comedy’: wronged woman Juana pursues the man who hurt her and thwarts his plans to wrong another woman by adopting the pseudonym he is operating under, along with a bright green outfit, breeches and all, that makes Juana appear dashingly irresistible to women. Complications build on complications – de Molina pushes the farcical aspects of the situation as far as they can go and we delight in the artifice and contrivance of it all. It’s a bit of silly fun but I feel the cast work harder to keep this particular balloon in the air. The script doesn’t have the drive of a Lope de Vega and also his wisdom (I’ve seen two of his plays; I’m an expert!) – the stakes aren’t as high as in the other plays in this trio.
As the cross-dressing Juana, Hedydd Dylan has fun, adopting a macho swagger and deepening her voice while conveying Juana’s discomfort at the same time. She would be an excellent Viola or Rosalind. Jim Bywater amuses as the man servant she employs, put upon and world-weary, and Doug Rao is sufficiently dashing and dastardly as the gallant on the make. Chris Andrew Mellon is hilarious as the rather camp Quintana, rushing through his comic asides, and Simon Scardifield gets some good laughs as a rather petulant and posturing Don Juan. Katie Lightfoot gets a chance to lighten up, playing a younger version of the girl-in-the-white-dress character with relish.
Director Mehmet Ergen gives the production some stylish flourishes and it’s a bright and colourful affair, but I’m glad I saw it third and last. It’s a sweet dessert after the more nutritious and satisfying earlier courses.
Mark Bailey’s set of black squares edged with gold proves versatile across all three plays and his work on costume merits commendation. Each play has its own aesthetic within the all-purpose setting, matching the overall tone of the piece. I especially liked the black, gold and white palette of Punishment Without Revenge.
You won’t go wrong if you only see one of the three, but I’d urge you to go to two or all three, and you’d be hard-pressed to find better quality productions of these pieces. I can’t believe the RSC don’t stage more of these but until they do, I am grateful to Laurence Boswell and the Belgrade for rekindling my interest in the golden age of Spanish drama.