A hoard of Spanish treasure

Simon Scardifeld (Don Juan), Katie Lightfoot (Dona Ines), Dona Clara (Katie Hemingway) and Heddydd Dylan (Don Juana/Don Gil)

Spanish Golden Age

Belgrade Theatre B2, Coventry

*****

THIS is a Golden Age for the Belgrade Theatre. Watching a play on the theatre’s B2 Studio stage is almost comparable to a visit to the Swan at Stratford.

Yet nothing prepared me for the extraordinary excellence and ingenuity of its coproduced ‘Spanish Golden Age’ Season – three plays by grandees of the Elizabethan (or I guess one should say Philippic) era of Hispanic drama: by Shakespeare’s almost exact contemporary Lope de Vega (1562-1635); and the impressively long-lived Tirso de Molina (c1579-1648), who lasted through to the end of the Thirty Years’ War.

These three sizzling stagings we owe to the Belgrade, to East London’s innovative Arcola Theatre (dubbed ‘an undisputed powerhouse’ by Time Out), and to Bath’s Theatre Royal (more often, like Malvern, a major receiving house for dramas en route to the London stage). You would have thought a box office risk, but no: Coventry’s evening and matinee audiences were respectable in numbers and eager in anticipation.

It’s heartbreaking to think this sensational ensemble of ten actors will shortly be broken up and disperse. My first taste of them here was the one tragedy among the three dramas, Lope de Vega’s Punishment without Revenge. I came away reeling.

What hits one is not just the company’s stage glitter but the brilliant ingenuity of Vega’s writings, captured here in a top drawer translation by Meredith Oakes (each of the three, one tragedy and two comedies, although the Spanish were keen to intermingle the two genres, has a different translator: Sean O’Brien for Don Gil de las Calzas Verdes; David Johnston for La Dama Boba).

Yet for all its dark power and arch repartee, in some ways this scintillating tragedy is not quite Shakespeare. Punishment without Revenge centres round a randy, reformed Duke of Ferrara (William Hoyland, rather a benign old cove in all three), who plans to land the dukedom on his illegitimate son, but is outdone by popular opinion and manipulating political pressures. He takes a young wife, wherewith to sire a new heir, only to find his young bastard is more to her taste (a case of the biter bit). The gory dénouement sees him almost coolly (hence the title) arrange for the judicial murder of both. Suppressing anger and jealousy, he simply exercises merciless law.

Shakespeare, at any stage of his career, would have furnished more plot diversions and undercurrents, and eloquent speeches whose imagery goes far beyond Vega’s, to wrench expectations and render the outcome sharper, bitterer. Nor is the Spaniard’s treatment here as bald as, say, Marlowe or Webster. The accompanying comedies show that the Spaniards come closer, perhaps, to Ben Jonson.

Yet powerful stuff it is. There were some obvious gems in this production of El Castigo Sin Venganza (1631). One was Simon Scardifoot, who as the hapless bag carrier Batin (aide to Nick Barber’s vividly characterised, believably erotic Federico, the bastard) creates a character somewhere between Baldrick and Lord Percy of Blackadder.

The wonderful Frances McNamee as Finea in A Lady Of Little Sense

Yet Scardifoot is subtler: in two of these plays (less so in Don Gil) he generates a host of little half gestures and anticipatory flickers and after-flutters, half-started then half-ended utterances, that are like a dictionary of comic mastery.

When he drops his voice he sometimes allows witticisms to get lost; but most you get. Munching, blinking, twitching, scratching, whining, huffing and puffing, shifting from foot to foot, playing up as Federico’s servant acting the Duke’s fool, he is very, very funny, as well as polished, poignant, sympathetic.

The company’s most notable wonder is actress Frances McNamee. Subtle, sharp, edgy, versatile, snappy in comic roles, searing in tragedy, you’d have though the RNT or RSC would have grabbed her by now. They should certainly make a beeline for her.

On Mark Bailey’s simple, tapestried or mirror-backed Hispanic set, and in his superb take on early Jacobean costume, she looks good every time; she commands a stage effortlessly. She can do the sensual and intimate and confidential as easily as she does noblesse and regal hauteur. Vocal and insuppressible, when her Cassandra acts appalled, she shivers you in your boots: ‘Are you in love with some bronze image or alabaster nymph?’ Her outburst on women’s role as a chattel in the house – and the proto-feminism with which Vega lets her dismiss it, was classic: a clear enunciation of woman’s role as the real power behind, or even in front of, the throne.

Yet the Duke’s speech early on is pure Shakespeare: Hoyland plays broadly the same benign tall figure in all three plays, and speaks his lines – one long monologue ‘My mother was called Laurentia’ for instance - in an endearing old-school way. Honourably, tediously noble. Curiously, it is (I think) he who argues in this play that marriage ‘should be a matter of taste’, not merely arranged (as his is).

The support cast delivers well, but it was Chris Andrew Mellon (Ricardo and Rutilio), here as in the other plays, who slightly upped the quality of the speaking. Katie Lightfoot produced an aptly irritable and ambitious Aurora, the vexed niece; she can shrew for England (or perhaps Iberia). 

The Lope de Vega comedy, A Lady of Little Sense, again directed with visionary control and flair by the Theatre Royal, Bath Studio’s (and formerly Gate Theatre’s) Laurence Boswell, sees McNamee play an extraordinary role as the supposed marriageable halfwit who is in fact the shrewdest, most intellectual of them all.

As she wantonly flips from her newly acquired assurance to and fro from her flighty and provocative former self (a teenager, in fact), bewildering all around her with crazy stares and two year old tantrums, the effect is hilarious. But also disconcerting. And disarming.

This was an utterly magnetic performance, riddled with aplomb, rendering A Lady of Little Sense (La Doña Boba) arguably the best of the three.    

Scardifield was again the second treat. The comedy – servant and master, etc. - is virtually Plautine, its quick-fire witticisms certainly up to Shakespeare; and whatever the role or character type, he brings it to life in his own inimitable way – jealous suitor, put-upon bag-carrier, muttering, hapless, pouting victim of his own misjudgments.

Hedydd Dylan in Don Gil of the Green Breeches

He does a private line in poignancy; and helplessness; the result is helplessly funny. He splits sides by introducing us to the word – and the concept of – ‘unhugging’. His whole act seems to build up (for me, seeing the plays in that order) to where he is revealed hiding under a table in Don Gil. Blackadder again - a complete nitwit.

Jim Bywater – soon to appear, and triumph, in Don Gil in the important servant role – here does a nice little vignette as the tutor who thinks he can tame this Katharina/Shrew but soon gets worsted.

Doug Rao flourishes in all three plays – semi-inventive but utterly sound - as the suave, would-be suitor who is not quite as clever as he thinks. Scene after brilliant scene is sensationally, nattily well directed by Boswell, who has acquired in his leads (someone’s fine auditioning or casting) some particularly intelligent, and adroit performers.

Somehow you sense all the time in this nifty, never-misses-a-trick production that there’s some sort of spoof going on; and invariably there is. But it’s never overloaded. A joke, a sly moment, an in-your-face surprise comes and goes, to be replaced by something quite contrasting. It’s a masterpiece of pacing. Again, Ben Jonson comes to mind: The Epicene, The Devil is an Ass, and so on.

It was noticeable there was virtually no music – at least, background music – in A Lady of Little Sense. A good decision. That for Punishment without Revenge (a kind of indeterminate original score from Jon Nicholls) struck me as a bit of a hodge-podge, and ineffective, though perhaps no worse than your average Stratford.

His levels as Sound Designer were rather good throughout, however; and if you yearned for some Spanish Golden Age music – Victoria, or Morales – in the tragedy, you got it in Don Gil, which included some unbelievably melting music of the period, beautifully chosen and aptly pitched. And to differentiate the three plays was almost certainly a good idea.

Ben Ormerod’s lighting effects were subdued but masterly. He had a knack of picking out quite complex or angular blockings, two or three people at a time, to strongest effect. The restrained use of cyclorama and colour effects within the rearstage entry channel invariably impacted well. Some of his scene changes were gratifyingly slick, helping the pace of all three plays immensely.

The third play, Don Gil of the Green Breeches, is the one not by Lope de Vega but by Tirso de Molina (best known for El Burlador de Sevilla (the original Don Juan),

The Upside-Down Republic, and so on). Molina, unlike Vega, did not enlist and serve in Philip II’s Spanish Armada against England!

If the dramatic impact here (in Don Gil de las Calzas Verdes) was less, it was partly due to the more routinely zany nature of the plot (girl seeks to retrieve her errant lover by adopting a series of disguises), even though, as the superbly full programme notes explain, ‘Tirso takes some of the common ingredients of Golden Age comedy as it had developed under the tutelage of Lope de Vega, and pushes them beyond the normal, formal limits….In a complex, ambitious farce the main actress leads the audience to the edge of comedy, almost to the point of no return (girl becomes boy becomes girl in a – as Gide had it - mise-en-abîme: as if in a series of mirrors).’

What it did have was a terrific lead. RADA-trained Hedydd Dylan had already caught the eye with a brilliant series of vignettes as the maid Clara, a mischievous aide and support to Francis McNamee’s Finea, the feisty teenager of A Lady of Little Sense. Here as Doña Juana, posing as the supposed Don Gil in violent swathes of Lincoln Green (at one point late in the play no less than four characters - not all of them male - appear in the same attire, in a bid to claim they are Don Gil), Dylan was pure delight.

LESS SECURE

However there seemed a less secure directorial hand, even though the Arcola’s founder, Mehmet Ergen, was at the helm, and this slightly cost her (and the men, who at times looked pathetically underdirected). Had the same kind of precision and variety that marked her Clara been present here, or had her own sharp-witted invention been on a par with McNamee’s (who provided a frumpy maid without stealing the show), Dylan would have solved the problem of the saminess of some of the scenes. Paradoxically, she did really well in Juana/Gil’s Tempest-like set-piece exposition at the outset. The fun never lapsed, she held the stage magnificently, she has beautifully canny ways of rounding off a gesture or casting a knowing look over her shoulder, and in one scene she was a dead ringer for Trinculo discovering Stephano and Caliban: very funny. When she redresses as a Spanish lady, confusing all by her similarity to the green boy, it makes for shiveringly good theatre.

She was also suitably boyish (‘the Don of love is just a boy’ goes together with several sly allusions by others to ‘his’ relative pricklessness); but directorially the story and pacing and overall presentation still slowed and limped in places. She manages the emerging chaos (‘This is a mess’) brilliantly, even if at times it’s just a bit too much like watching Julie Andrews in Pantomime.

What Ergen did to his credit achieve was drawing out their best performances (in the three plays) from both Katie Lightfoot (as the aspiring Doña Ines) and Annie Hemingway (as the impossible suitor Doña Clara, a sort of maroon-clad Joanna Lumley-offshoot). Nick Barber, the splendid Federico from Punishment without Revenge, pulled off the role of servant (Ossorio) with aplomb; Scardifield found new ways of recycling his old tricks as the incompetent and bungling (and most unlikely-named) Don Juan, who actually ends up getting his girl (Ines).

What did this trilogy prove, apart from the genuinely inspired skills of this patched together acting team, the dramatic punch of its main leads, and the calibre of the Arcola-Bath Theatre Royal-Belgrade direction and staging?

It showed how in early 17th century Spain the role of women was, or could be,  amazingly liberated; how the Hispanics had as fine a gift as ours for playing the fool; how they were not afraid of mocking and parodying moneyed or haughty or jumped-up aristocracy; how they raised questions of different perceptions across the generations; and how servants could impudently wisecrack, effortlessly outwit their masters, rule the roost, advise their bosses what to do and abet them in their antics. This is indeed the comedy of Aristophanes, of Plautus-cum-Shakespeare (The Comedy of Errors), of Da Ponte (Don Giovanni-Leporello).

Or as Jonathan Thacker’s note on Don Gil puts it, ‘What is it that makes Don Gil, an invented character played by a woman, more attractive than the other men in the play? What do “his” actions tell us about social roles and expectations? Is a more moral, just society out of the question?’

Above all, it showed that the 70-plus full length plays of Molina, and the well over a hundred dramas of Vega, if these be anything like typical, are a serious omission from the English stage. We need to see more of them. And we will clearly be the better for it.To 19-04-14.

Roderic Dunnett 

Contents page Belgrade Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre