"I know what you're thinking," offers Kathryn Hunter's Celestina at one point: "'What's he playing at, this director?'" Answer: the usual. Once again, one of the supposed highlights of the Edinburgh International Festival's theatre schedule is an English-language production of a major global work, staged by Catalan director Calixto Bieito for the Birmingham Rep company. Bieito reveals in the programme notes that last year, he knew Hamlet was so well known that he was more or less required to radically deconstruct it, which he did by setting it in a night club that grew increasingly squalid as the evening progressed. This year, in contrast, Fernando de Rojas's 1490s dialogue-based proto-novel is unfamiliar to British audiences, so Bieito has apparently felt obliged to adopt a more comprehensibly linear staging... which he has done by setting it in a night club that grows increasingly squalid as the evening progresses.
To be sure, Kathryn Hunter is beautifully cast as the ageing bawd and matchmaker, the "old whore" as she is regularly called, who sets about winning Melibea for the lovestruck young Calisto. Hunter, still growing out the shaven head she adopted for Whistling Psyche earlier this year, wears a man's suit and dominates the stage like a petite, gynandrous Godfather. She patters to both characters and audience like a street auctioneer, and with as little feeling for anything but the main chance.
Hunter is impressive, and the quartet playing 1970s "rumba Catalana" music periodically spur things into vitality, but the rest of the evening is two and a quarter uninterrupted hours of diminishing returns. Translator John Clifford claims "I have invented nothing," although one doubts that Calisto's promise to give Celestina his Porsche 911 Turbo was in the original book. The various tensions between whores and their johns, culminating in Celestina's auction of a handicapped girl's virginity to an audience plant, all add to the atmosphere of Bieito's interpretation but not necessarily to that of de Rojas' piece. The climactic union of the lovers is portrayed in a way that directly contradicts the text, and the final quarter hour is given over to a grief-stricken monologue by Melibea's father, who had not previously appeared and serves as nothing more than a pious mouthpiece. I eavesdropped on the audience leaving the theatre: every group I heard said, "Well, [something or other] was very good," in a way that suggested this was the only positive thing they could find. The unspoken "but" hung as heavy and as pervasive as the reek from the nearby Fountainbridge brewery.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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