How to engage with an enemy who uses different rules? It's a question facing various countries and powers around the world at present, and not an issue one might expect to see addressed in a play by Lope de Vega. But The Gentleman From Olmedo, dating from 1620, derives its central tragedy from precisely such a situation: the title character Don Alonso, although not above an amusing stratagem or two, fundamentally adheres to rather archaic notions of nobility, and is undone by a love-rival who is a more modern, but somehow squalid, pragmatist.
Lope was unparalleled as a prolific dramatist: he claimed to have penned 1500 plays, and even the most conservative scholars attribute over 300 surviving works to him. This one apparently took him two and a half days, but it's not a slapdash affair. Taking his inspiration from a folk song and setting his action some three centuries back, the playwright uses a Spain in flux to examine notions of the old and the new, what is gained and lost by adhering to each competing code or attitude. Tellingly, his King of Castile seems to embody a wisdom which draws on the best of both worlds.
The Newbury Watermill steals a march on the Royal Shakespeare Company by getting its Lope in first, shortly before his The Dog In The Manger opens in Stratford... and by the same translator as well. David Johnston saves some of the best gags from his 1991 version of the play, rehousing them in a script which more even-handedly balances comedy with poetry and romance as Don Alonso attempts to secure the hand of Doña Inés, and all in an easy contemporary register.
In Jonathan Munby's solid production, Michael Matus and Maggie Shevlin stand out in comic roles as the Don's squire and the matchmaker respectively, but they don't overbalance the proceedings; the Don's death is a shocking moment, aided by Dominic Haslam's score, and the constant sense of looming, ineluctable fate anticipates Lorca by four centuries. But it's a production of interest rather than revelation; thirteen years on from the audacious Gate Theatre season that included Johnston's earlier version, British theatre still seems to be rediscovering the Spanish Golden Age rather than venturing firm opinions about it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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