Bridewell Theatre, London EC4
Opened 10 February, 1997

Even though only a fraction of Lope de Vega's estimated thousand and a half plays has survived, it remains the case that settling upon a work hitherto neglected in Britain by the Spanish Golden Age dramatist is about as difficult as finding some hay in a haystack. New company Strangers' Gallery has selected a piece, first published in 1617 under the title Los Paces del Rey, recounting the youthful rise, adulterous decline and subsequent redemption of King Alfonso VIII of Castile.

Translator Michael Jacobs' notes admit that "its great subtleties and dramatic power have been little appreciated anywhere for over three and a half centuries." Nor, unfortunately, will this production work wonders for its rehabilitation. Director Colin Ellwood and his cast a mixture of RSC veterans and recent drama-school graduates turn in a consistently solid presentation. However, although it is free of major faults, it also lacks much of a spark; Lope's play, blending as it does political, spiritual and erotic strains, does not want for dramatic tinder, but the Bridewell shows few signs of coming alight.

Contrary to Jacobs' assertions, the diffuseness of the play turns out to be more of a hindrance than a strength. Beginning with an account of the boy-king Alfonso's seizure of his birthright, and with each act set several years after the preceding one, the work begins as chronicle rather than drama. Retitling it to focus upon Alfonso's seven-year extramarital dalliance with the Jewess Rachel creates further expectations which Lope never intended exclusively to meet; to be blunt, only halfway into the three-hour evening do the two of them get down to it in a wordless mating dance.

The translator also spreads himself thinly in his attempts to convey the variety of linguistic registers in which the play is written. Jacobs ranges from rhyming (though only loosely metrical) verse to sometimes galumphing puns for the low comic characters, whilst as many laughs (usually in the vicinity of the company's child actors) come from remarks not originally intended to be humorous. Whether through a lapse on the part of Jacobs or the actors, the lines as performed also include the occasional solecism (such as "impute" for "impugn").

Ellwood and his company are given at once too much and too little to fasten onto with any kind of security. Michelle Gomez as Rachel has too few opportunities to round out either her sensuality or her (politically) wicked selfishness; Russell Layton as the king's confidant Garcerán, persuaded to join the cabal which murders Rachel, is largely limited in this phase to mute agonising; Simon Chadwick's Alfonso is compelled to cover the entire emotional waterfront, culminating in an almost aphasic bout of remorse; Charlotte Christie as his queen, Leonor, has a single magnificent scene amid an otherwise sparse role. Strangers' Gallery are plainly not merely recycling platitudes when they vow to tackle "challenging material", but on this first outing the challenge is simply too much for them.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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