The RSC bring the Spanish Golden Age to Spain, 2004

1st November 2004

How the RSC gave Spain a lesson in teatro

Dominic Cavendish went to Madrid to watch the British company’s triumphant performance of a Spanish Golden Age classic. Published in the Daily Telegraph 01 Nov 2004

It is, so everyone keeps telling me from the moment of my arrival, quite simply the hottest ticket in town.
While there are still seats going spare for the weekend’s big game – Real Madrid v Valencia – if you want to see the Royal Shakespeare Company performing The Dog in the Manger (“El perro del hortelano”) by Lope de Vega, inaugurating a week-long mini-season of classics and curiosities from the 17th-century Spanish Golden Age, you have to beg, borrow or steal.

Faced with a choice between seeing two arch footballing rivals battle it out and two theatre cultures go head-to-head, madrileños in the know are reportedly voting with their feet and flocking to the artistic match of the season.
Whisked from the airport to the Teatro Español in the city centre in time for curtain-up, I see the evidence with my own eyes: in the square outside this 19th-century playhouse, its neo-classical façade embedded with the busts of Spain’s playwriting pantheon, sizeable crowds have gathered. Excited señoras y caballeros are pressing to take their seats in the ornately gilded, four-tier auditorium. Once they’re inside, the doors are bolted shut to ensure that no gatecrashers sneak through.

Among the RSC’s chosen representatives, glee at the buzz stirred by the company’s arrival in the capital combines with an unmistakable air of first-night terror. The Dog in the Manger was the soaraway success of the Spanish Golden Age season that ran this summer at Stratford, and plays again in the UK from next week. To British critics unacquainted with De Vega’s taut, dark comedy of fast-shifting emotional allegiances, Laurence Boswell’s production was “a revelation”, “a real eye-opener”.

Although only Nancy Meckler’s revival of House of Desires by Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz provoked similar levels of critical ecstasy – with Tirso de Molina’s Tamar’s Revenge, as directed by Simon Usher, receiving a drubbing, and a mixed response greeting the very rare staging of Cervantes’s Pedro, the Great Pretender – the whole season was bathed in a golden glow from The Dog in a Manger onwards.

In Spain, by contrast, El perro del hortelano remains one of the best known dramas from “la Edad de Oro” (the Golden Age), and the RSC are performing it, not just in De Vega’s hometown, but on the same turf where it was spawned: the Teatro Español sits on the site of the Corral del Principe, the courtyard theatre that provided the principal platform for most of de Vega’s prodigious, populist output (incredibly, he churned out at least one play for every two months of his 55 years as a writer).

To get some idea of the pressure-cooker nature of the occasion, you have to imagine, say, the Comédie Francaise pitching up at Shakespeare’s Globe for a festival of the Bard’s work, inviting the audience to hear the plays rendered into French, while following surtitles formed from a combination of the original folios and new translations. The Spanish don’t have an equivalent for “taking coals to Newcastle” but that’s exactly what’s going on.

“I’ve suggested to Laurence that we make no decision about his going up on stage at the end until the interval,” Jeremy Adams, the producer for the tour tactfully confides as we settle into our seats. The dress-rehearsal that afternoon, conducted in front of 30 or so invited guests, was met with stony silence; it’s not uncommon, someone nervously explains, for Spanish audiences to boo at work they disdain. We hold our breaths.

And very swiftly, the tension melts away, as a polite trickle of laughter turns into a torrent. You can feel the audience being won over – persuaded by the confidence and fluency of the ensemble, and seduced by bravura turns: Rebecca Johnson’s haughtily regal countess, John Ramm’s bombastic ass of a suitor, Joseph Millson and Simon Trinder’s sensational double-act as the dithering Teodoro and his doltish servant Tristan.

The more the characters are overtaken by events, struggling to contend with violent pendulum swings of mood and behaviour as the competing demands of love and honour kick in, the more the actors’ self-control and alertness to the moment shine through.

The play’s close sets off a standing ovation, and Boswell – the show’s director and architect of the whole season – takes his well-deserved bow. As the audience streams out of the theatre, erudite eulogies gush forth, many of them picking up on both the technical ability of the actors and the natural affinity between a robust, practical, “Shakespearean” ensemble and the vital theatre of De Vega’s day.

“You could call it Vegaspeare or Shakesvega,” quips the theatre’s artistic director, Mario Gas. For some, it’s quite clear why the RSC has succeeded in conquering such daunting terrain: “In England, you have something we don’t really have in Spain, a marvellous training in the art of speaking,” says local director Gabriel Garbisu. “Here we don’t appreciate our treasures.”

But, for Ariel Goldenberg, the impresario who brought them over as part of Madrid’s annual festival de otoño, it’s hard to account for such thespian perfection: “Don’t ask me why the actors in England are better than in other countries because I don’t have a reasonable explanation,” he shrugs in amusement.

The consensus is that lessons can be learned from this moment of theatrical history, a sentiment echoed in many of the subsequent reviews. ABC’s critic, under the headline “Lope Freed”, will exclaim that: “The tendency of Spanish
directors to direct the comedies of Lope de Vega in a very sombre way has always been irritating, as if they were afraid of the fact that [he] wrote for the masses. Where Lope’s spirit was for many years imprisoned by his compatriots, here it has recovered its lost freedom.”

El Pais will prove equally admiring: “In the RSC’s hands, a play whose commentaries on social class can draw actors and directors into grinding solemnity erupts like a geyser.”

Boswell, who has become a vociferous champion of the Spanish Golden Age in Britain in the 25 years since he first stumbled across The Dog in a Manger as a student, expresses quiet satisfaction at the turn-out of events, as he prepares to head back home to pick up rehearsals for the RSC’s Christmas show, Beauty and the Beast.

“I was pretty nervous, I suppose, about its reception,” he confesses. “To come to Madrid and perform on the very spot where many of these plays would have had their première, that’s a very rare kind of occasion, especially because Spain has had a broken theatre tradition and still doesn’t have a consistent arts funding policy. A lot of Spanish practitioners have been saying what a wonderful evening it was, but their remarks were tinged with sadness, because they felt they haven’t seen their classics done so well themselves and they’re a little bit ashamed about that.”

You could say that modesty should have prevented him from saying as much, but there are times when British theatre deserves to blow its own trumpet.

This article was originally published here

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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