Spanish gold

It’s the common people who pay for our plays, so we should speak their language

 – Lope de Vega (1562-1635), Spanish playwright

Studying theatre at uni, we spent ages on Shakespeare.  We read, researched, wrote, experimented, acted and workshopped Elizabethan drama.  We did a Clockwork Orange-flavoured presentation of the Scottish play.  I played Alex/ Macbeth, egged on to violence by my droogs/thanes.  It was probably terrible!

But only now, nearly fifty years on, have I discovered the Spanish golden age of theatre.  I’d heard of it, but have no memory of its being on the syllabus – nor experience of it since.  Is it me – or, even after all these years, are UK courses and repertoires still insular?

The Spanish and English periods overlap, with the two countries at war, culminating in the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588).  England’s victory – says – led to a surge of national pride

Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett, in the 2007 film, in shiny armour) declared: If the best arrangements are made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our island home, if necessary alone”.  Remind you of anything?

I tried to read Don Quixote (1605), the first great European novel by Cervantes, but couldn’t finish it.  I enjoyed the tilting at windmills, which comes early on, but grew tired of the silly episodes of fake chivalry.  Maybe I need to try again.

I visited the Prado in Madrid and loved the huge, intense paintings of El Greco and Velasquez.

I knew a bit about Lope de Vega, because his most famous drama, Fuente Ovejuna (1619), was political – a cry for democracy.  I read about its first British production, in 1939, by Manchester’s Theatre Union, by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl. 

Based on a true 1476 incident in the village of Fuente Ovejuna, the people kill their raping, despotic commander.  The king and queen try to force an individual confession but, Spartacus-like, the villagers declare: Fuente ovejuna lo hizo (the whole village did it).

Our theatre studies also mentioned the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina, because he invented the character of the arch-womaniser, Don Juan (1616) – later dramatised by Moliere, Mozart, George Bernard Shaw and many others.

Two of Pedro Calderon’s plays, Life’s a dream (1635) and The Mayor of Zalamea, get produced in British theatres now and then.  But I’ve never seen them.

Until now.  Thanks to Edinburgh Lyceum’s opening show of their autumn 2021 season, there was a chance to see an escudo of Spanish theatrical gold. Originally to be staged pre-pandemic, Life is a Dream finally opened this October.  It was worth the wait.

As we entered the auditorium, everything had changed.  The actor-audience configuration was revamped, with the stage floor extended out over the stalls, so that we sat and watched, on four sides, the action in the middle. 

It reminded me of a similar in-the-round set up we devised on the Citizens’ stage whilst the façade – then new, now demolished – was built.  It inspired the creation of 2 studio theatres front-of-house.

This Lyceum Calderon was anything but small-scale.  They kept the whole auditorium open; the show’s reach exceeded its grasp.  The actors darted round the wings, aisles, circle, seats, pit, traps, drapes and two proscenium arches (one real, one fake) to evoke a world from Moscow to Poland, encompassing global ideas: reality/dreams; authority/popular rebellion; family feuds; free will and love.

It’s the antithesis of domestic drama and this version made the most of it.  Design, costumes and Wils Wilson’s direction all captured the broad, epic sweep of the play and its times.  They abandoned the confines of naturalistic theatre and made it exciting to watch.

The actors echoed this.  As the shackled prince Segismundo, Lorn Macdonald’s fuck-you, unconventional acting style was electrifying.  Like him, Alison Peebles, Laura Lovemore and the rest grabbed their roles by the scruff of the neck and made them spring into life.

As jilted Rosaura, Anna Russell-Martin made her character the feisty agent of change, reclaiming not just honour, but the rightful order of things.  I love it when, in a universal situation like this, an actor makes the most of her Scottish voice.

Calderon’s era, apparently, shared a lot with Shakespeare’s.  Open-air playhouses.  Prolific output of plays. Diverse sources, stories and styles – religious and secular, classical and current, comic and tragic.

As Lope de Vega’s quotation above shows, they also appealed to a broad audience; their theatre was probably more democratic than today’s.  At the Lyceum, the £52 for 2 concession tickets on a Tuesday may not be in most people’s price range (though they are streaming the show for £10 each).

And they had plagues.  As Lyceum director David Greig wrote in his (free) programme note: The 1600’s were plague years all across Europe.  In 1605, London theatres were shut.  With 22 plague outbreaks in Spain during that century, it’s almost certain that Calderon would have experienced a total theatre shut down like ours.

Contemporary relevance, right there!

Paul Bassett


December 2021

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