Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Opened 9 September, 2004

Philip Osment has put immense effort into his English version of Miguel de Cervantes' Pedro, The Great Pretender. He worked from two literal translations, took frequent advice from scholars, and laboured mightily to reproduce where possible the immense range of verse forms in which the original Spanish text was written. He took a deliberate decision not to introduce 21st-century updates. What doesn't seem to have occurred to him is the matter of the resulting version's playability, or at least listenability. One keeps hearing the form of the piece rather than its content. And the responsibility is that much greater since, although the play was published in 1615, this RSC presentation is believed to be its professional première.

Luckily, Mike Alfreds' production overcomes such an obtrusive text. Alfreds has long excelled at directing ensemble work, and so it is here. The tale of a conman amid small-town officials and gypsies in 17th-century Andalusia, and the play's structure of assembling a storyline from 13 semi-discrete episodes, lend themselves to a vaguely Brechtian staging in which the company remain seated onstage throughout and swig from bottles of mineral water between scenes, clocking the audience and each other while their fellows change the props onstage.

It's probably going too far to compare Pedro himself to Brechtian proletarian tricksters such as Azdak in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, although that rogue magistrate would no doubt have been tickled by Pedro's idea of putting slips of paper with random sentences in the mayor's ceremonial hood and dispensing justice by inspired lottery. John Ramm shares with us the enjoyment of role-play as Pedro disguises himself as a mad-staring-eyed monk to cozen a miserly widow of her wealth, flings himself into the gypsy life until it gets awkward, and realises to his astonished delight that if he joins a troupe of players he can get paid for all this pretend stuff.

Other company assets include Julius D'Silva, who with the mere addition of a twirly moustache becomes a veritable cartoon of a pompous mayor, Joseph Millson as a king fallen into adolescent infatuation with a gypsy girl, Rebecca Johnson as his deviously jealous queen and Claire ox as the ambitious gypsy in question. The evening can flag, especially when Osment's self-conscious verse starts jangling once again. But it's an honourable and largely successful close to the RSC's Spanish Golden Age season.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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