Tag Archives: translate


26 Jan



First appeared in The British Theatre Guide on 25 January 2014

Tragedy is harder to pull off than comedy. And three plays on rotation over seven months in three different theatres is a feat for one ensemble. But that’s no excuse for a rather tired performance as Part II of the Arcola Theatre’s Spanish Golden Age Season at The Arcola Theatre.

El castigo sin venganza (literal translation: Punishment Without Revenge) is one of early seventeenth-century playwright Lope de Vega’s most celebrated works. Pregnant with classical allusions, it tells the story of secret love between son and stepmother, weaving together well-worn themes of incest, honour, morality and retribution. Count Federico, illegitimate son of a lecherous old Duke, falls in love with the well-bred Cassandra brought to be his father’s bride. Discovering the Duke only wed Cassandra as a front to hide his continued debauchery, Federico and his new stepmother give in to their passion. When the Duke returns from war chastened, their tryst unravels.

ImageDirected by Laurence Boswell, long-time promoter of the Spanish Golden Age, this production plays up similarities to Shakespearean plays that preceded it by two or three decades. Meredith Oakes’ translation nods to Macbeth when Ricardo talks of “the milk of human kindness”. And Boswell suffuses his visual landscape with references to Hamlet, Federico bursting onstage halfway through the first act rumpled shirt hanging loosely, hair on end, eyes staring wildly: “I’m not the man I was”. “What…is more insane than I am?” he asks, as his father sends doctors to diagnose him.

But where Hamlet stays predominantly with the eponymous hero, Punishment flits between Federico, Cassandra, the Duke’s niece Aurora and at least one comic subplot. There isn’t enough character development of Federico or Cassandra for the audience to understand their need for each other. And it doesn’t help that the sexual tension between Nick Barber and Frances McNamee is lukewarm, signalled only in their initial advances by a Game of Thrones style exit, McNamee in Barber’s arms like a bride crossing her threshold. All this makes Federico’s self-torture seem like petulant whining; something even the text seems to nod towards: “I may exaggerate beyond all sense and reason…” And so the anticipated bloodletting at the finale strikes an English audience as a watered down version of Shakespeare or Marlowe.

ImageIn Don Gil of the Green Breeches (Part I of the Season), the actors loved their lines, lingering over some of Sean O’Brien’s finer translation. In Punishment, they seemed to resent them, stumbling and grumbling through Meredith Oakes’ work.

That said, there are some standout performances. Frances McNamee as Cassandra embodies turmoil concealed by poise. Her monologue modulates from soft whisper to imperious cry as she captures the tear-smiled mask of a woman covering her true emotions.

Brilliant too are Simon Scardifield and Annie Hemingway as the comic duo of the subpot. Mixing slapstick – as Lucrecia does away with ponderous Batin’s shot of liqueur – with wit – as Batin finds words to describe Federico and Cassandra’s love: “They have taken to each other almost like a mother and son” – they lift the play’s pace.

ImageMark Bailey’s set and costumes are enough to almost make you forget you’re in a less-established venue. Luxurious velvets and starched ruffs left me wondering where the budget had come from. And the actor’s carousel-like use of the double doors at stage rear was an inventive way to flit back and forth between scenes naturally.

But in comparison to Don Gil, Punishment has less artistic value. Whereas de Vega is already well-known to English audiences, Tirso de Molina (Don Gil’s playwright) is a less familiar name and therefore ripe to be served in translation.

This production felt a little too self-indulgent, made for those already in love with plays of the Spanish Golden Age, not made to convert those in a modern English audience who don’t know it.


DON GIL OF THE GREEN BREECHES (Don Gil de las Calzas Verdes), at the Arcola Theatre

19 Jan



First appeared in The British Theatre Guide on 17 January 2014

For a fleeting moment it looked like the feisty female lead might – just might – beat the men at their own game. Revenge wreaked, I pictured this green-garbed girl pouring scorn on the advances of her faithless former lover and exiting stage left pursued by the fashion victims (a study in green) that she created.

Sadly however, although Sean O’Brien updates the words, he doesn’t update the story.  Don Gil of the Green Breeches, one of seventeenth-century Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina’s early comedies, is, in the end, a conventional play. The women may appear to lead the action, but none of them end up with what they want: Donna Juana falls back into a relationship with a man who dropped her for a wealthier version; Donna Ines ends up with the unpalatable suitor she spends most of the play avoiding; even Donna Clara can’t get the Don Gil of her dreams.

In this production, both men and women struggle to escape their respective gender roles (Caramanchel sees “hermaphrodites” round every corner), but are ultimately thwarted by Marriage, the ultimate heterosexual convention.

That’s not to say the cast doesn’t have fun blurring the gender lines. A dance sequence between Donna Juana, in masculine dress as Don Gil, is as sexually charged as it is comic – more erotic than Shakespeare’s Viola and Orsino.

ImageFor Don Gil of the Green Breeches is like Twelfth Night on speed. The girl doesn’t just dress up as a boy; she takes the man she wants to snare’s fake name and then pretends to be another girl dressing up as the male character she’s created, while all the other men want to dress up as her – or him – or, well you get the idea. The layers of dramatic irony used to perfection by Shakespeare are doubled and then stripped away, when Elvira’s likeness to Don Gil isn’t just remarked upon, but picked apart unwittingly by Donna Ines.

In a final nod to Twelfth Night, the eponymous green breeches, symbol of Donna Ines’ perfect man, become as absurd as Malvolio’s yellow stockings when character after character enters the stage sporting them.

This new translation of the Spanish is beautiful, lyrical phrases hidden among the deliberate full stops of rhyming couplets. O’Brien brings the text into twenty-first-century English without losing the occasional Spanish turn of phrase, even if a few of the jokes in the first scene fall flat.

ImageThe cast is the strongest thing about this production. Hedydd Dylan’s energy and purpose in her physicality makes her as alluring in drag as she is in her velvet dress. Chris Andrew Mellon’s mellifluous voice turns on a knife edge between silky smarminess and cuttingly nasty asides. These asides, used freely by all the characters, work perfectly in the Arcola’s small space, creating an even more intimate experience for the audience.

There is a danger the performance descends into panto territory: Don Martin as a revamped Spencer Matthews, as good-looking as he is self-obsessed; Donna Ines as the spoilt Queenie from Blackadder II, alternating between scrunched up face and overblown sexual innuendo; Donna Clara’s vast drawn-on beauty spot; and Don Juan’s orange getup complete with frilly garter (another Malvolio throwback). When Donna Juana asks, “But subtle would you not agree?” the audience’s laughter suggests otherwise.

ImageSo too does it feel too easy to camp up Don Juan, the unfavourable suitor and general thorn in the side. Instead of cashing in on the cheap laughs at a fey chap, why not unpick why we still laugh at “girly” men and “manly” girls?

All in all, it would have been nice to see director Mehmet Ergen, founder and artistic director at the Arcola, doing something a bit more radical with this. That is, after all, his forte. But as this is part of the theatre’s Spanish Golden Age Season, led by well-known Iberophile Laurence Boswell, perhaps faithfulness to the text won out over originality.