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Since January, London’s Arcola Theatre, Bath’s Theatre Royal and Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre have presented an ambitious Spanish Golden Age Season: “Three great plays, one ensemble.” The issues these plays address are strikingly modern. They question the role of gender and power in love and in marriage. They ask questions about honour (a big topic of the Spanish Golden Age) and manage hugely complex and intricate plot structures which spin a yarn. Though long, they are, above all, entertaining and witty, transporting a London audience to an alien world of beggar-poets and mujeres esquivas. The persistent question that links these plays centres around the role of women in society, a topical debate in Theatreland given the recent staging of Blurred Lines by Nick Payne and Carie Cracknell at the National Theatre’s Shed. The new translations of these plays by Sean O’Brien (Don Gil), David Johnston (A Lady of Little Sense) and Meredith Oakes (Punishment Without Revenge) all do what a good translation should do: they are invisible and convincing in English.
Don Gil of the Green Breeches (Don Gil de las calzas verdes) by Tirso de Molina, translated by Sean O’Brien, directed by Mehmet Ergen
Gordon Minter, one of the foremost translators of Tirso de Molina’s Don Gil of the Green Breeches, has described this exuberant comedy as an ironic, female-centred inversion of the Don Juan legend. It tells the story of Doña Juana, played by the standout Hedydd Dylan, who takes revenge on her former lover, Don Martín, who has abandoned her in his pursuit of fortune to marry the wealthy Doña Inés. Following him on his journey to Madrid, Juana shows herself to be an formidable enemy of Don Martín and, through a series of episodes involving identity theft and confusion, foils his plans to marry Inés by shadowing his deeds and undoing them. She uses the dark arts of courtly wooing enacted on her by Don Martín to her advantage in order to successfully woo Inés. The result of this is a fast-pitched rollicking play that weaves an absurd and tangled web ultimately leading Juana to recapture the affections of her old lover. In securing her marriage with Don Martín, despite the odds, she shows her wit and ability to use his own arts against him, proving her opening line: “But love’s a cruel judge you’ll see. A jailer of souls.”
A Lady of Little Sense (La Dama boba) by Lope de Vega, translated by David Johnston, directed by Laurence Boswell
A Lady of Little Sense was the most entertaining of the three pieces. A Golden Age romantic comedy, the plot pivots around two sisters: the intelligent and beautiful Nise and the stupid but also beautiful Finea. Although Finea has the much bigger dowry her utter stupidity means that the premise of the plot is to try and fool a suitor into marrying her. This happens, but in a way that no one could have suspected.
Laurencio, who had previously been courting Nise, “cashes her in” to transfer his affection to Finea, primarily out of financial practicalities (“a cracked cup, but brimming with gold”). He is noble but poor, so though he was once in love with the intelligence and wit of Nise he decides he would rather the large dowry of Finea to provide him with the lifestyle to which he aspires. The absurd and pompous suitors incessantly courting Nise are particularly well acted by Chris Andrew Mellon and Doug Rao, as is Katie Lightfoot’s across-the-board excellent performance as Nise.
Women were a prime occupation of Lope de Vega, in his life as well as his plays; his famously tempestuous love life involved at least thirteen women, including two wives. A Lady of Little Sense continues Lope’s probing of women’s social role. “A wife’s intelligence lies in love and service,” proclaims Don Octavio, Nise and Finea’s father. In this respect Nise’s outward show of her intelligence and education proves to be her downfall. In showing her intelligence she behaves too much like a man, leading to charges of “arrogance”; she does not keep her thoughts “inwards” as a respectable woman should. As her father points out, “being academically gifted does very little for a woman”. Finea’s tutorial scenes breed some exceptional comic moments: Frances McNamee’s depiction of her stupidity is brilliantly absurd. Ultimately, however, love will have a potent effect on Finea as she is transformed from a halfwit to a “new soul”. In finding her senses, she proclaims herself to be “the work of love – its creature”, the ideal of an innocent, malleable woman forged to an image of perfection by her husband. Most interestingly, Finea has learnt her father’s code of honour so well that she is able to invert the rules, and uses them to her own advantage to secure her preferred husband. Finea deploys the guise of honour to stow her lover in her father’s attic, and in doing so exposes the falseness of these codes of honour and their fallacy as she these patriarchal rules to her own advantage. The play is undoubtedly entertaining, but a morality play it is not: the foolish (Finea) and the avaricious (Laurencio) get their own way and are married happily ever after by the end.
Punishment Without Revenge (El castigo sin venganza) by Lope de Vega, translated by Meredith Oakes, directed by Laurence Boswell
Punishment Without Revenge is the most melodramatic of the three, and conforms to an extent to what a contemporary audience might “expect” from a Spanish Golden Age play. A beautiful maiden saved by a chivalrous Count? Check. An evil Duke? Check. Dry ice, opulent costumes? Of course. Not to mention a love story that goes horribly wrong. We are told from the beginning to “never trust appearances”, and the play tragically proves this maxim. The characters are seemingly driven by destiny: although Cassandra is engaged to the Duke, she falls in love with his son, Federico. As Federico states: “I’ve discovered my soul in your presence… You’ve seen my eyes; you’ve seen my soul.” The impossible love forces Federico into the expected courtly love-stricken limbo existence of being “not quite dead and not quite human”, though finally finds the best cure to his malady in the arms of the unfaithful Cassandra. Lope de Vega presents us with an interesting tension between the accepted and numerous infidelities of the Duke to Cassandra, against Cassandra’s own affair – which she will ultimately pay for with her life. The Duke’s primary concern is not to lose honour in the face of society. He concludes that the appropriate price of maintaining his “honour” is the murder of Cassandra and Federico – questioning once more the nature of honour and love.
There’s something in contemporary staging of classics, particularly Golden Age classics, that is often off-putting to contemporary – and especially younger – audiences. With the word “classic” comes the preconception of an expectation of reverence and respect, which can all too often be stultifying. But a play is just that: a play. It has a duty to be playful and, yes, entertaining. These Classics – with a capital C – are only Classics because of their popularity with the general public of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They are funny and, more often than not, they are bawdy; these plays were irreverent in their day and irreverent they remain. Much of the entertainment comes from how they throw questions back into our faces: “The theatre is a mirror, showing wise and old […] grief and pain,” to take a line from Punishment. As for gender, Tirso de Molina and Lope de Vega present us with empowered women, who not only questioned but actively broke with accepted social codes to get what they desired, who manipulate the social codes of courtly love and notions of honour to invert codes used by men to their own advantage. I doubt either dramaturg would have guessed that, in the 21st century, we would still be asking these questions.
The Spanish Golden Age season finishes on March 15. See the Arcola website for more information.