Laurence Boswell was at the forefront of the Gate Theatre's early 1990s agenda of rehabilitating the works of Spanish Golden Age dramatists such as Tirso de Molina, Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. His RSC production of this Calderón play from around 1645 was greeted last year in Stratford with a mixture of plaudits and puzzlement, an attitude which persists on this London transfer.
It is impossible to gauge whether or not Calderón is endorsing the code of honour which binds his noble protagonist, the middle-aged aesthete Don Juan: whether his destruction is due to forces which cannot be questioned, or iniquitous social convention; whether the play is tragedy or melodrama. The work is driven by the differing strategies of courtly obligation and human passion, right from the beginning when Don Juan's old friend Don Luis threatens to break off relations with him for the mild slight of lodging elsewhere. The Don compels his young bride Serafina to dance with a masked stranger in the second act, because the rules of masquerade forbid refusal, even though Serafina realises and Don Juan suspects that the man's intentions are far from honourable. He is in fact her former lover Alvaro, presumed drowned and intent on regaining her even though she consistently refuses him – either through a genuine affection for Don Juan or a sense of her own honourable obligation.
The uncertainty of tone is carried through from Boswell and David Johnston's translation; they cannot resist peppering the powerful courtly language with minor gags, yet the character who should be the centre of humour – the Don's manservant Juanete – is played by Tony Rohr as a grumbling malcontent. Sara Mair-Thomas's Serafina seems in a constant state of panic, quivering like an aspen both physically and vocally; as Alvaro, Charles Daish is such a callow hothead that one cannot but approve Serafina's decision to stick with Don Juan rather than return to this young pup. However, John Carlisle gives a masterly performance as Don Juan, conveying with equal potency the revelation of a late awakening to love, the pain of an intelligent man finding himself prey to jealousy, and finally – when Serafina is abducted by Alvaro – the insupportable anguish of his compulsion to seek revenge, as he wanders the land in the guise of a poor painter. Carlisle carries on one pair of shoulders the authority of Calderón's writing, its insight in using the Don's artistic skills to illuminate emotional complexities and its probing inquiries as, in the final act, he rails, "What madness created laws like these?"
But one pair of shoulders is not enough. Boswell directs the play with a heightened theatricality, including courtly flamenco sequences and the constant presence on the sidelines of the mute, red-masked figure of Death reminding us that it will all end in tears, but we are never sure what to make of the play as a whole. This is most apparent when the main plot strand meets the subplot, in which Alvaro's sister is conducting a clandestine affair with a prince who would rather be pursuing Serafina: both the prince and Serafina are herded into hiding in the same closet, in a device which must surely have reeked as strongly of farce to the play's original audience as it does today. The play's close leaves the audience in a bewildering position; we feel keenly the wrongs of an honour code whose real victim is neither Serafina nor Alvaro lying dead, but Don Juan who has just shot them (and is forgiven by their respective families), yet we cannot fathom whether we are intended to feel tragically purged, condemnatory or stoically resigned.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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