England has never been open house to Spanish Golden Age drama. Our own provided us with a surfeit of classic texts, from Shakespeare down through Jonson to the whole, glittering array of Jacobean playwrights. As a result Lope de Vega and Calderon are little more than famous names to English playgoers, more honoured in the breach than the observance. Maybe if the Armada wind had blown the other way there'd have been no native flowering, and we'd all now be celebrating Lope's name as the greatest playwright the world had ever seen. "Es de Lope" after all is proverbial in Spain for anything of the most excellent quality, a quality extending to his 400 and more surviving plays!
When once every blue moon London does play host to him, the choice inevitably seems to fall on Fuenteovejuna. Full marks to the Young Vic for casting the net wider and unearthing his great tragicomedy Peribáñez y el Comendador de Ocaña, written between 1606 and 1614. As Peribanez it is enjoying an unexpected triumph and extended run in this most stimulating of London venues - and rightly so.
The plot, familiar to zarzueleros as Vives's La Villana (for which librettists Romero and Fernández Shaw filleted Lope most skilfully) is simple and clear. Perebanez is a Castilian yeoman farmer betrothed to his beloved Casilda, who has the ill luck to attract the attentions of the local military Commander on the very day of her wedding. Don Fadrique's increasingly desperate attempts to win her sexual compliance finally lead him to make Perebanez a Gentleman and army captain, in order to get him off to the wars and away from the farmhouse. By this time smelling a very tangible rat, the yeoman returns at night to discover Don Fadrique in the act of attempted rape, and murders both him and his accomplices. Appearing with Casilda before the King in Toledo, Perebanez pleads his cause in a famous and impassioned speech. Enrique III recognises the justice of his action, forgives and rewards him.
So much for the bare bones. The play's central themes are the demands of fidelity, honour, caste and social order, all put across with humour, depth and boundless vitality in a swiftly moving sequence taking in court, military camp and - at its heart - the farmhouse itself, a microcosm of Spain with its own order of servants, transient harvesters, relatives, and even its own 'King and Queen' in Perebanez and Casilda themselves. Their growing, mutual strength and hardening under siege is counterpointed by the moral collapse of the Commander himself. The tone is that uniquely Spanish mix of hard-edged laughter and tears, turning on a sixpence. As with the contemporary films of Pedro Almodóvar and the best género chico zarzuelas, we never quite know where we are, emotionally or morally. Every action is evaluated with cold eye, but nobody is judged and everyone is given their say.
Yes indeed. Lope translates well, but the sheer volume of his verbal vitality proves difficult for modern adaptors to harness. How avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Tanya Ronder's direct text often succeeds in channelling the stream, and the graceful lilt of her poetic rendition of the wedding speeches of husband and wife hit the mark beautifully. Maybe one or two more babies were unnecessarily lost. In particular, the paring of Perebanez's final plea before the King proves damaging in that the tying up of the plot seems perfunctory, rather than the natural outcome of complex events. On the other hand, the swiftness of the end lets the question mark left hanging over the heads of the surviving couple - have these horrors damaged Casilda's feeling for her husband irrevocably, and vice versa? - resonate brutally as the audience leaves the theatre.
The success of Rufus Norris's high-voltage modern-dress production, with its company of 13 actors, most of whom pick up musical instruments when they're not doubling as horses, is to get the spirit of the play across without seriously compromising its complexity. There's no need to hammer on about the nobility of the peasantry, when the sight of Perebanez talking to his horse - tellingly doubled by the actor playing Don Fadrique - says it all in one deceptively simple image. Lope never patronises or idealises his peasantry, and the decision to play them in a variety of Scottish, Irish and Welsh accents rather than go for a consistent Mummerset helped convey his open-handed attitude. The seasonal festivities and working order of the farmhouse are pungently evoked, partly through the urgent Latino rhythms of Orlando Gough's ear-catching score, but mainly through the power of the acting itself.
The principal trio are specially impressive. David Harewood, a recent National Theatre Othello, is very classy indeed, his drums-and-trumpets Don Fadrique by turns bestial, human, appalling and sympathetic. His dying forgiveness of Perbanez achieves a tragic rightness. Fadrique's rival, Michael Nardone's Italian-Glaswegian Perebanez, is initially much less impressive, rising by slow degrees to new-found nobility and the monstrous grandeur of the murders, before sinking back into near incoherence, equally moving in his own minor key. The still point in this whirling storm, Jackie Morrison's Casilda, comes over strong, fresh and clear throughout, ducking neither the sensuality nor the moral outrage of the character, well worth fighting for.
If one or two of the supporting roles, notably Mark Lockyer's Stiff Upper Prick of a staff officer, seem unnecessarily shoehorned into caricature, there is plenty of evidence down through the ranks of thought, sensitivity and plausible invention. Ian MacNeil's two-level set squats inertly over proceedings like a beached yacht, to little effect; although the hugger-mugger claustrophobia of the murder scene, with the near-naked Perebanez hiding (per Lope's directions) in a flour barrel before emerging as a white-dusted killing machine, pig-sticker in hand, to clot the white with red, is powerfully evoked.
Those near-unwatchable climactic horrors are just one effective element in a production which reminds us forcibly what theatre should be like, and so often is not - surprising, stimulating, open, engaged, truly interactive and joyously alive. No received opinions or politically correct auteurism here. Rufus Norris should be encouraged to transfer his working methods, which have served Lope's tragicomedy so well, to those equally tragicomic "centres of excellence" scattered throughout our parlous UK theatre scene. Perebanez is a good deed in a naughty world.
© Christopher Webber 2003