Juan loves Ana. Ana loves Carlos. Carlos loves Leonor. Leonor loves Carlos, too, but is also pursued by Ana's brother Pedro. They all end up under the same roof, often in the dark, along with Leonor's father and a couple of comic sidekicks. If that sounds like the makings of a classic farce, then try adding this lot to the mix: every character is referred to as Don or Doña whoever-they-are, they're concerned not nearly so much with getting jiggy as with securing honourable marriages, and the play was written in 1683 by a Mexican nun.
House Of Desires by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is on the late side compared to Lope de Vega and the like, but this ebullient meditation on love and honour – written as a formal piece for the viceregal court of Mexico – is the jewel in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Spanish Golden Age season to date. Sor Juana simultaneously celebrates the virtues enshrined in the honour code of Spanish nobility and ridicules the extreme dilemmas that can result from too-slavish adherence to that code; she affects to disdain worldly achievement and gratification, whilst it drives her entire plot; and she has a dazzlingly uncloistered grasp both of human nature and of stagecraft.
Director Nancy Meckler has found a manner of presentation which suits both her and the play, and sits excellently within the Swan Theatre's deeply thrust stage and galleries. As artistic director of Shared Experience, Meckler specialises in an imaginative, non-naturalistic style which honours both the textual and the physical aspects of theatre. She takes a broadly similar approach here, but utilises aspects of ritual to comic effect. Many speeches are delivered straight out to the audience, with an exaggerated formality; characters are on occasion literally wheeled on and off the stage on ornate trucks; and the old reverse-lighting device – turning the stage lights up to signify what the characters experience as a blackout, so that the audience clearly sees them groping around in pretended pitch-darkness – is deployed more than once to excellent effect.
The dramatic action is paused for a sizeable chunk of the second half, for a tenuously justified set-piece in which Don Carlos's servant Castaño disguises himself in Leonor's clothes and is then taken for her. This kind of sequence would normally irk and bore me, but it is entirely redeemed by Sor Juana's lively writing (in an easy, playable translation by Catherine Boyle) and especially by Simon Trinder's performance. Trinder has rather cornered the RSC market in comic manservants in the last year or two, but never has he worked a text or an audience with such mastery; the sequence anticipates the daft exuberance of Accidental Death Of An Anarchist by three centuries.
As his master Don Carlos, Joseph Millson combines a smouldering gravitas with a sonorous North Ulster accent; when he bellows lines such as "I carry Etna in my soul!", it is as if Antonio Banderas had had a love-child with Ian Paisley. William Buckhurst also has a remarkable moment as Don Pedro, when his face remains utterly frozen in an absurd rictus whilst his eyes dart around, looking for all the world like a Terry Gilliam animation. Rebecca Johnson manages to find comedy even in such a paragon of virtue as Leonor, and Katherine Kelly is almost a match for Trinder as maidservant Celia. A delightful revelation, all told.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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