HOUSE OF DESIRES
Playhouse Theatre, London WC2
Opened 1 February, 2005
****

Theatre reviews must often read as if weíre getting all luvvie and head-in-the-clouds about wildly implausible shows. But please trust me on this one: This is a rollicking romantic farce written by a 17th-century Mexican nun, and itís phenomenally enjoyable.  I know, I know. But really. It was the high point of the RSCís Spanish Golden Age season in Stratford last year, and now it will be again in London.

Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz was a bit of a smarty-pants as things went in 1680s Mexico. Her play, however, not only criticises the nonsensical codes of honour that governed her society, but does so with a great sense of fun.  Thereís really not a lot of point in trying to sum up the plot: every young aristo is in love with every other one, and mistaken about othersí intentions.  With hilarious consequences, naturally.

Director Nancy Meckler has a fine sense for making plays live beyond the text on the page, with a variety of physical and visual interpretative touches.  Thereís an air of ceremonial to some of the set-pieces. Actors are sometimes wheeled on and off on stage trucks.  Best of all, a couple of scenes are played in what for the characters is darkness but on a fully-lit stage, so that we can clearly see their gropings.

The actorsí performances are a little bit knowing, but not smug about it. The audience is always kept in on the joke.  This relationship is best shown in a 20-minute sequence in the second half which sees the manservant disguising himself in a skirt. It may well be the funniest drag routine Iíve ever seen.  Simon Trinder has emerged as a gifted comedian in recent RSC shows, but this lifts him onto another plane entirely.

The play boasts a clutch of agreeably silly portrayals. Joseph Millson as the hunk Don Carlos, for example, smoulders and bellows like the love child of Antonio Banderas and Ian Paisley.  British theatre has rediscovered 17th-century Spanish drama in the last 10 to 15 years. Much of it is sensitive, intelligent high romance, but thereís a deep and enduring comic vein as well.  Itís a habit worth getting into.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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