This fantastic laugh-out-loud comedy explores sexuality, transvestism, same-sex attraction, love and deceit with light-hearted farce combined with amazing complexity of plot. It was written four centuries ago, by the Roman Catholic priest Tirso de Molina, who actually became head of his monastery in Spain. Things did not go easy for Tirso in his day in the Church or theatre as he struggled to combine his vocation with his gift as a playwright which puts him up there with Shakespeare and the other greats at least in terms of comic genius and linguistic phrasing. This new translation by our own living poet and playwright, the TS Eliot prizewinner Sean O’Brien does this genius justice. O’Brien also brings out through the translation the modern parallels with the themes of the comedy. I cannot imagine any priest alive today writing, or being allowed to write, work of comparable stature with such challenging themes.
This and the other three shows in the Spanish Golden Age run at the Arcola share a stellar cast. We had Hedydd Dylan as Donna Juana, the beautiful Katie Lightfoot as Donna Ines, Doug Rao as Don Martin, William Hoyland as Don Pedro, Simon Scardifield as Don Juan and Annie Hemingway as Donna Clara. Mehmet Ergen’s fluent direction with a minimalist but effective set plays well to the intimate, in-the-round staging in this interesting space in north London.
The plot is not easy to explain simply. It has to be seen. The action begins when the intelligent, boyish Donna Juana’s fiancé Don Martin abandons her to seek marriage with a wealthy, beautiful but dim-witted heiress instead, Donna Ines. Don Martin takes the name Don Gil to pursue Ines and it adds to the comedy for us today that this Spanish name is pronounced ‘heel’. Donna Juana pursues her faithless lover but herself takes the name Don Gil also and dresses as a man, in green breeches, managing to win the heart instantly of Donna Ines and seemingly every other woman in the play, who remain infatuated even when her disguise is exposed. There is some woman-on-woman action here and at one point there are four Don Gils in green breeches on the stage. I was transfixed especially by RADA graduate Dylan’s wonderfully expressive face but also could not take my eyes off Jim Bywater as Caramanchel and Don Diego. Rao had an enviable intensity in his portrayal of deceit and then confusion as he was himself deceived.
A good part of the comedy, and dramatic tension, comes from the manner in which the play teeters constantly on the edge of credibility but never quite topples over. The way the Juliet balcony is deployed, the ladder coming down from it and other comic devices play homage to Shakespeare and also, possibly, poke a little fun at him as well. How audiences 400 years ago must have loved and been shocked by this play.
If like me you are one of those people who tries regularly and fails to get tickets for the Donmar, and is frustrated at failing to see Corialanus to name but one of many, go and see these Spanish classics instead. In so many respects they are in the same league and also, perhaps most important of all, they are just a huge amount of fun.
Arcola Theatre, Theatre Royal Bath and Belgrade Theatre Coventry present DON GIL OF THE GREEN BREECHES / Don Gil de las Calzas Verdes (1615) by Tirso de Molina New translation by Sean O’Brien
Directed by Mehmet Ergen, Set and Costume Design, Mark Bailey, Lighting Design, Ben Ormerod, Composer/Sound Design, Jon Nicholls, Costume Supervisor, Lisa Aitken, Movement Director, Lucy Cullingford.
Cast: Nick Barber, Jim Bywater, Hedydd Dylan, Annie Hemingway, William Hoyland, Katie Lightfoot, Frances McNamee, Chris Andrew Mellon, Doug Rao, Simon Scardifield.
Ticket Information and times
THREE “GOLDEN AGE” PLAYS IN REPERTORY 9 January – 15 March 2014
Monday – Saturday Evenings at 7.30pm £18 (£14 con)
DON GIL OF THE GREEN BREECHES
Performance Dates in Rep w/c 13th January (Mon – Sat)
w/c 3rd February (Mon – Sat) w/c 24th February (Mon – Sat) 15th March (Sat Eve)
Saturday matinees at 2.30pm £16 (£12 con)
Pay What You Can Tuesdays
Running time: 2hrs 25mins including interval
See the full schedule of performances here:
Saturday 18th January 2014