Magazine article The Spectator

Golden Reward

Magazine article The Spectator

Golden Reward

Article excerpt

Theatre 2

Golden reward

The Dog in the Manger

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Welcome to the Golden Age of Spanish drama. Even if the names of Shakespeare's near-contemporaries Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina and Calderon are not unknown, their plays are rarely seen. Back in the early 1990s, London's Gate Theatre put on a Golden Age season directed by Laurence Boswell, who also staged Calderon's The Painter of Dishonour for the RSC in 1995. Nearly ten years on, Boswell's in charge of the RSC's Spanish festival at the Swan. No Calderón this time, but works by Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina (both priests), by the seriously obscure Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (a Mexican nun) and by Cervantes, the one we've all heard of, and, yes, he did write the odd play as well, in this case Pedro, the Great Pretender.

As the religious vocations suggest, this is a very different world from that of our own Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights. The Lope who invented the art of Spanish comedia was also a minor official of the Inquisition and churned out sacramental verse plays for Corpus Christi. He adored women and had at least seven wives or mistresses and children galore. Passionately patriotic, he couldn't stand the Brits. He sailed with the Armada and wrote a furious diatribe, La Dragontea, against Sir Francis Drake and Elizabeth I. Shakespeare's plays and his own drew on several common sources, but there's no evidence that either was aware of the other's existence. Lope is certainly an intriguing figure, and the good news is that Boswell's terrifically stylish production of The Dog in the Manger (c.1615) shows it to be a crackingly good play.

Lope's immense lifetime popularity was earned by sailing closer to the wind than anyone else. His theatre offered playgoers the gratification of seeing the mickey taken, with consummate panache, out of the controlling values of the strict Catholic monarchy. At the Swan, the costumes are handsomely in period, while the burnished glow from the pierced metal sheeting covering the stage and forming great doors behind it suggests the opulence of 'la Edad de Oro'. In so far as a non-Spanish speaker should offer an opinion, David Johnston's free-verse translation seems altogether excellent. The sheer verve and momentum of the show enable Boswell to get away - just - with the wicked anachronism of advertising the existence of an off-stage tavern by captioning a devotional image of the Virgin and Child with the neon letters, 'Bar Maria'. On such juxtapositions have Catholic societies ever thrived.

But most invigorating of all are the performances of a first-rate cast. …

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