The Theatreguide.London Review
Lope de Vega's 1613 play, part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Spanish Golden Age season, is Shakespearean in its mix of drama, romance and comedy. The one flaw in this otherwise attractive mix is that it remains a mix rather than a blend.
Unlike Shakespeare, Lope can't quite make the different modes fit together, and the play keeps grindingly shifting gears as character and tone go from farce to melodrama and back
Director Laurence Boswell and his talented cast have not found a way to smooth over these changes so, while you are likely to enjoy each individual minute, you will too often be caught up short as a character or plot twist you have been laughing at suddenly turns serious, or vice-versa.
The play centres on haughty noblewoman Diana, who rejects her many suitors and the very idea of romance. But when she discovers that her secretary Teodoro is wooing one of her ladies-in-waiting, he suddenly becomes attractive to her, even though, since he's a commoner, marriage is unthinkable to her.
Every time she lets him know she's interested, he dumps his girlfriend and comes running. Every time her sense of class makes her back off, he goes running back to the waiting lady in waiting.
Meanwhile, to complicate the action, her official suitors decide to have him killed, but mistake his loyal servant for a murderer-for-hire. And meanwhile that same wily servant figures out that an old nobleman in town grieving for his long-lost son might provide a solution to his master's class-crossed romance.
There are obviously lots of opportunities for low farce here, and Lope mines them all. Rebecca Johnson's Diana is, at moments, the ultimate ditzy female, unable to decide what she wants, while Joseph Millson's Teodoro is driven to frantic desperation by her come hither-no-go-away signals.
But at other moments, frequently within the same scenes and always without transitions, Diana is a tragic figure, kept from happiness by a social code she cannot imagine violating, and Teodoro is a simple man just looking for someplace to settle his affections.
Meanwhile, the play fleshes out that poor lady in waiting and that grieving father just enough that we can't be fully comfortable as they are blithely tossed about by the farcical plot. Just about the only character not caught in this double bind is the wily servant played with wit and high energy by Simon Trinder.
Shakespeare could do it - blend low comedy and real emotion - in such plays as Twelfth Night and Much Ado, though the difficulty even master companies like the RSC sometimes have with those plays shows how fragile the mode is. That the RSC is as successful as it is with Lope's version is a remarkable accomplishment. If you can ignore the grinding of gears, and are not disoriented by laughing at someone you were just feeling pity for, then there is much to enjoy here.
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