and in his garden tried to please her
BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 21 May, 1998

Now that BAC's future is financially assured for a few minutes more at least, artistic director Tom Morris has programmed its three spaces thematically. Whilst Studio One hosts seasons curated by the Red Room theatre, and Studio Two (most controversially) opts for "radio-theatre" in a Playing In The Dark strand, business continues pretty much as usual in the centre's main house. In this case, "as usual" means Absolute Theatre's competent but unexceptional productions of two plays by Lorca narrating the love of older men for younger, inconstant women.

The Shoemaker's Wonderful Wife (La zapatera prodigiosa), here given what is apparently its British professional premiere, takes up the bulk of the evening (sadly and disconcertingly protracted on the press night by an interruption when a member of the audience fell seriously ill). With Jessica Worrall's trompe-l'œil set and colour-coded characters, and Andrew Pratt directing the phalanx of outraged neighbours in a kind of clockwork flamenco, the visual and theatrical tone is suitably Lorquista: related to small-town Spanish life, but artificially heightened and a little mechanised. Simon Wright and Sarah Jane Field wrangle and reconcile as the shoemaker and his teenage wife, as he flees her irksomeness and she subsequently discovers an undreamt-of depth of fidelity to his memory. Songs and chants punctuate the action, giving greater vent to the ever-present poetry even of Lorca's dramatic writing; accompaniment is supplied by a brace of musicians on guitars, pipe and – most wondrously – a cymbal played with a bow to produce a noise like shards of a satellite falling to earth. A prologue spoken from beneath "the author's hat" (we know this because it says so on the chapeau in question) is heard without any of the laughs perhaps intended; a puppet-play towards the end effectively dramatises the couple's estrangement for them to see.

This is followed by the play rendered here as How Don Perlimplin Adored Belisa and in his garden tried to please her, which also inhabits the familiar territory of domestic tension, betrayal and ultimate sacrifice. Wright and Field return as the second mismatched couple, and Pratt directs even more mechanistically: actors move, to the sound of the bowed cymbal, from tableau to tableau to deliver their lines, never admitting the slightest natural movement. John Edmunds's translations occasionally fall limp – Belisa's response to Perlimplin's death is, "I had no idea he was such a complicated man." The productions are perfectly serviceable, but ultimately fail to glow with the green fire of the dramatist's poetical visions.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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