Wednesday afternoon. Quite nice weather as I recall. Near the end of the run. No great surprise that Theatre 503, (above the Latchmere in Battersea), was home to just a few, presumably, lost souls including your intrepid correspondent. Hopefully a few more punters pitched up for the more sociable slots as this play, about a couple “finding themselves” on the Inca trail, whilst not overwhelming at the time, has actually, and unexpectedly, lodged in my memory.
It is written by Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez, a young playwright with quite a reputation in his native Spain, and here translated by William Gregory. The nameless couple, played here with fearless commitment by Dilek Rose and Gareth Jones, are holed up in a hotel room in Cuzco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire, destroyed by the Conquistadors. She is feeling a bit peeky. He is frustrated that he has to go sightseeing on his own. Their relationship is plainly a bit rocky but as She, who is Spanish and riddled with post colonial guilt, rejects the tourist trappings to get “in touch” with the locals, and He contemplates a threesome with a vacuous rich US couple, things start to spiral out of control. She ends up rejecting her life in Europe to “come home” to a world replete with Inca symbolism. He cannot “follow” her and gets increasingly paranoid.
As quotidian dialogue gives way to philosophical monologue the play does go a bit kooky, but its themes still come across clearly and, briskly directed across its 70 minutes by Kate O’Connor, it doesn’t hang about. It did sometimes feel that the writer (and probably the translator) were straining a bit too hard for effect over content, and the simple set of Stephanie Williams, dictated by necessity, constrained the imagination. Mind you Max Pappenheim’s sound design did it best to open up the vistas, geographical and psychological.
Holidays eh. Always bring out the worst in people.
Finally the Tourist gets to see this. Took a chance that it would, after the mostly strong reviews, eventually find a home in London, and waited for the run to settle in to secure a fairly priced ticket. If you are of a similar mind, and haven’t seen it yet, I would advise you to do the same in the remaining few weeks. I am not sure it is quite the triumph some of the criterati would have you believe but the spry adaptation of James Fenton, the creative staging under Angus Jackson’s animated direction and the straight man – funny man double act of David Threlfall and Rufus Hound make it impossible not to enjoy.
Indeed once you strip out the comedy, Rufus Hound’s audience patter, the gags, the pratfalls, the puppetry, the knowing asides, the gurning, the mugging, the bun fight, all superbly orchestrated by comedy director Cal McCrystal, this is actually a moving, and occasionally, insightful play. In that regard it captures the spirit of the Cervantes novel(s). DQ may be an aged eccentric, living in a fantasy world, harking back to a world of chivalry unknown by early C17 Spain, let alone today, but he is also a man of conviction and belief, and this, surprisingly, just about squeaks through in this RSC production.
As the bond between DQ and sidekick Sancho Panza develops, and as we see the melancholic DQ doggedly stick to his quest despite the incredulity of those around him, we get ever closer to the “real” character. Result: a hushed audience taking in a closing deathbed scene, (sorry folks DQ does snuff it), where DQ regains his sanity, that is both moving and poignant. That this should be so is in part due to the sincere warmth that a padded-out Rufus Hound brings to SP, but mostly thanks to the wonderful performance of David Threlfall. Whilst the rest of the cast shifts, swirls, sings and dances around him, playing characters who, predominantly see him as a figure of fun to be endlessly mocked, DT plays it absolutely straight, even when flying Peter Pan like above the stage.
Mr Threlfall is no longer, unfortunately, the most prolific performer on stage or screen. The Tourist has only seen him once before, in the Young Vic Skellig many years ago. The last TV outing I can remember is his performance in the valuable, if flawed, recent BBC/Netflix retelling of the Greek myths, where he played Priam. Now it looks to me like DT is only interested in parts that allow him to proudly display his magnificent silver hair and beard. For his Don Quixote there is a whiff of aged Frank Gallagher, in looks, if not moral complexion, with whiskers, straggly hair and crumpled stockings. After the humorous introduction to SP, his wife and the villagers, all it takes is a few quick deft touches, by both adapter and actor, before we are convinced that reading too many chivalric romances from previous centuries could inspire our geriatric hidalgo to become a knight-errant and set off on his fantastic adventures. He may be deluded but we believe that the world he sees is all too real.
A short three hour play (it breezes by) is never going to be able to capture the complexity of Cervantes’s picaresque novel. There is a reason, actually there are many reasons, why DQ is considered the greatest literary work from the Spanish Golden Age, indeed one of the greatest of all time, comparable with contemporary Shakespeare. The first “modern” novel indeed. It is both stirring adventure (the Tourist’s take on first reading when a tween) and fountain of intertextuality (the lesson from the second reading a couple of decades latter). It is tragicomedy, genuinely both funny and sad, a plea for the primacy of the individual non-conformist and a nuanced social commentary, a satire on misplaced nationalism, a discourse on the nature of truth and reality and a tragedy centred on the corruption of idealism. It is road movie, buddy movie, heroic fantasy, action movie, tall tale, parody, burlesque, fairy tale, slipstream fiction and psychological thriller.
Cervantes’s own precarious upbringing and life of adventure (duels, midnight flits, military service, serious illness, paralysis, years of slavery in Africa, prison sentences, stabbings, affairs) are reflected in its pages. It is pretty much the only work for which Cervantes is remembered but, despite the great success of Part 1 (1605) and then sequel Part 2 (1615) he barely made a penny out of it. He died in poverty a few days after Shakespeare.
All this sort of stuff was meat and drink to writers, and readers, in C17 Spain, and clearly given the speed with which its fame spread, the rest of the Western world, but its cultural ubiquity ever since speaks to its resonance. Films, TV shows, books, songs, paintings, illustrations, tapestries, sculptures, operas, ballets, tone poems. And of course a Broadway musical in the form of The Man From La Mancha. A quick perusal of London entertainment guides will show you that in the next few weeks you can see this very musical at the ENO or, should you prefer, Marius Pepita’s ballet version at the Royal Opera House.
Whilst not quite matching the stirring cheesiness of Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh’s To Dream The Impossible Dream, this production has plenty of catchy Hispanic-inflected songs courtesy of Grant Olding and James Fenton. This does add to the somewhat episodic nature of the production, as does the need to wheel out the various sceneries, props, puppets and the like. Then again that is entirely in keeping with the tone and structure of the novel, as is so much here, and there is enough pantomime distraction to maintain momentum. The attempt to mimic the meta-theatricality of the novels by having DQ’s fame preceding him in the second half is a little stilted but, again, offers something to chew on besides the generous humour.
The set design of Robert Innes Hopkins, in common with his other recent RSC outings, has an elegant simplicity (and he does like to emphasis the vertical), and another meta touch with the giant cut-out of our hero as a backdrop, and the lighting of Mark Henderson and sound of Fergus O’Hare expertly delineates the mundane from the fanciful. Most notable however is the puppetry of Toby Olie, notably a peckish falcon, an angry lion and some convincing sheep (though maybe not quite the army that DQ sees!). Now frankly the Tourist is a bit fuzzy on the art of puppetry so he can’t be sure that the constructions signifying horse and donkey, with their human appendices, fall into the category, but they are the basis for some mighty fine entertainment.
No one could accuse Friedrich Schiller of holding back in Don Carlos. Goethe inspired Sturm und Drang Romanticism, a Kantian paean to the centrality of personal freedom and democracy, the clash of liberty and tyranny, a stab at the sublime, a (loose) history of a turning point in the Spanish Golden Age, a political thriller chock full of intrigue, an (incestuous) love story, an increasingly intense Renaissance style tragedy lifting directly from Shakespeare, most notably Hamlet and Othello, but also Lear, Julius Caesar and Henry IV, which spills over into melodrama: it is big on passion and big on ideas. Operatic in scope you might say. Which is why Verdi wasn’t the only one who espied its potential.
It took five years to write, finally published in 1787, which might also explain its meandering nature and abrupt tonal shifts, and, if you were unfortunate enough to sit through the original, ostentatious five acts of blank verse in their entirety you wouldn’t get much change out of seven hours. No one ever has mind you. This is kitchen sink drama. As in Freddy chucked the dramatic kitchen sink at it, not as in a pint-sized slice of domestic realism.
This production, in a translation by Robert David MacDonald, clocks in at 3 hours. Schiller was largely ignored by the English speaking world for a couple of centuries. One reason why he no longer is, as well as Goethe, Lermentov, Gogol, Goldoni and Racine, is Mr MacDonald. Fluent in 8 languages he was the brains behind the Glasgow Citizens Theatre as well as an accomplished playwright in his own right.
Nor could one accuse Israeli director Gadi Roll, and actor Tom Burke, whose inaugural production as theatre company Ara this is, of holding back. Ara is intended to bring non-naturalistic theatre to the regional masses (though I am not sure the good people of Kingston, half an hour by train away from the South Bank, qualify as regional). They have started with a bang here. This is stripped back minimalist European auteur theatre which prizes style as well as content. Designer Rosanna Vize, who normally offers just a little more, makes do with the bare Rose stage and a few chairs, and modern dress with a vague Golden Age/Matrix flourish (and a lot of shades). The constantly moving lighting rigs in Jonathan Samuels’s design are dramatic and very effective (he worked with Gadi Roll on the Belgrade Coventry productions of The House of Bernarda Alba and Don Juan Comes Back From The War which is where Tom Burke met Mr Roll). The mingling of the private and public spheres.
The actors move around the stage in stylised straight lines. In the first couple of acts, the cast, notably Samuel Valentine as Don Carlos himself and Alexandra Dowling as the Princess of Eboli, (though with the notable exception of Tom Burke himself as the Marquis of Posa, the cool, calm voice of reason perhaps), spit their lines out with machine gun intensity, requiring the audience to keep ears and brains on their toes as it were. And there is a lot of shouting, notably from Darrell D’Silva’s Philip II. It is very, very, very dark most of the time and black is the dominant fashion. A nod to Velasquez, Ribera, Murillo et al?
I loved it. I see that the proper critics were less enamoured. Maybe the novelty of the play itself has worn off for these cynical hacks? The less than dynamic staging, the delivery of the lines and some of the acting didn’t past muster for many of them. Now I admit that the deliberately non-naturalistic choices made by Gadi Roll, in terms of look, movement and speech, did take a bit of getting used to, but necessary adjustment made, actually helped to see through to the core of Schiller’s text and messages and helpfully circumvent the worst of the melodrama. And it wasn’t just me. The SO, attracted by the history, and Mr TFP, an expert on German literature and culture, and a man who has read Schiller in German, agreed with me. I am guessing though that not all of the audience were as persuaded.
Young Don Carlos, the Infante, has the hots for Elizabeth of Valois (Kelly Gough). The only problem is Dad, Philip II, has married her. Dad also doesn’t trust the hot-headed Prince to get stuck into the affairs of government. And big Phil remember ousted his own Dad to seize the throne. When Carlos’s boyhood chum, the Marquis de Posa, returns to Court he confides his love and de Posa agrees to advance his suit if he in turn will help free the rebellious people of Flanders, oppressed by nasty Spain. Carlos asks Phil if he can go to Flanders (more exactly the Spanish Netherlands). Phil refuses and instead sends the Duke of Alba (Vinita Morgan). Cue bust up between the Duke and Don Carlos. There is a note and a key and Carlos ends up in the Queens bedroom with the Princess de Eboli who fancies him and wants to escape the clutches of the randy King. Thwarted she goes to Domingo (Jason Morell) the King’s Confessor. He plots with Alba to bring down the Queen and Carlos. A trap is laid but the suspicious King enlists de Posa to help uncover it. The Marquis’s enlightened ideas start to persuade the King but tyrants will be, albeit pragmatic, tyrants. There are some letters. misunderstandings, arrests, imprisonments, failed murders, accusations, double crossings, realisations, escapes and then, just when everyone least expects it, the Spanish Inquisition arrives (with Tom Burke doubling up as the Grand Inquisitor). To remind us that in C16 Spain it was ultimately the Catholic Church that held, literally, the whip hand.
Obviously it does get a bit silly but the bare bones of the romantic tragedy are involving and there is a brio to the story which is irresistible. The intellectual set piece between the Marquis and the King, “give men the right to think”, is powerful, affecting stuff, which gets to the heart of the struggle between absolutism and representation, filtered, as it is, through the recognition by Philip that the Marquis, even with his heresies, is the son he really wanted. Especially when you realise that the “real” Don Carlos was an utter f*ckwit. A victim of Hapsburg inbreeding, deformed, mentally unstable even before he underwent a trepanation, he might have blinded all the horses in the Royal stables, and was prone to chucking servants out of windows. Phil eventually locked him up. The despot in Philip is plain to see, but we also see his humanity, and his justifications. And de Posa may have right on his side but boy does he know it and, intoxicated by his own argument, he will manipulate anyone and everyone to get what he wants.
What next for Ara? This was a pretty bold first move. On the assumption that the style, the look, feel and intent of the company is set, I wonder if they might not be better served, at least in terms of critical response, by reviving a more recent play. We shall see. I hope they continue to aim high though.
Now a few words on the “gosh, how did that Greek/Jacobean/Restoration/Spanish Golden Age/French classicist/German romantic playwright create something so uncannily relevant to today” trope. It’s not because they could see into the future or were especially politically prescient. It is because we, as human beings, either individually or collectively, haven’t moved on much. We may have smartphones, good teeth and a colossal amount of debt, but the way we interact with each other in the body politic, and the core of our individual psychologies, haven’t changed much in the pitifully tiny amount of time where we have, to the detriment of other species I fear, “ruled” this planet. So if a playwright can nail these truths, whether in the 5th century BCE or yesterday, we will listen. Don Carlos was first staged two years before the French Revolution: by the time he published the final version in 1805 the dream has collapsed into the Reign of Terror and Napoleon was Emperor. Then Schiller popped his clogs. And you think we live in worrying times.
Having now seen this production, and the Almeida Mary Stuart, I hope to be able to bag another Schiller one day, The Robbers, Intrigue and Love, the Wallenstein Trilogy: all look likely candidates. He makes you work hard for your money, there is a lot, maybe too much, discussion, debate, confrontation and contemplation, but that is what the best dramatists do. And his characters are not just good, bad or indifferent. That is the true test of the playwright, the ability to show us many facets of the human condition, not all of which make sense or stack up. Nuance, ambivalence, enigma, complexity. To be on both sides, and on neither.
A modicum of research was all that was required to realise that this was going to be a curious, but also intriguing, entertainment. Which is near enough exactly what it was. Jo Clifford’s play was a hit at the Edinburgh fringe when it first appeared in 1985. With its story of a great Empire now in decline, and its scrutiny of strict gender roles in society, it is easy to see why the OT’s Paul Miller was drawn to revive it. The play certainly chimes with key contemporary debates on Brexit and toxic masculinity, and Jo Clifford’s own personal journey makes it more absorbing, but it is, structurally at least, something of an acquired taste.
Tim Delap plays the Pedro Tellez Geron (1574-1624) the third Duke of Osuna, a military adventurer, who, after becoming Viceroy of Sicily, and then of Naples, for Golden Age Spain, plotted to conquer Venice. The plot was uncovered and Osuna subsequently fell from favour after Philip III’s death in 1621. Jo Clifford’s play teams the Duke up with Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, (played by Christopher Logan), a poet and secretary to Queen Ana in the Spanish Court of Felipe II. He put himself about a bit, generally ruffled feathers and was one of the prime exponents of a dramatic writing style at the time known as Conceptismo, characterised by rapid rhythm, directness, simple vocabulary, witty metaphors and word-play. It prized multiple meanings and conceptual intricacies, in stark contrast to the ornateness of rival style at the time of Culteranismo. Both were obsessed with honour, reputation and chastity building on the sort of flummery that had bedevilled the world of secular culture for centuries prior.
Now knowing this, and that Jo Clifford had previously translated some of the greats from Spanish Golden Age theatre such as Calderon de la Barca, and you can begin to understand the structure of Losing Venice. For this to is a story with multiple meanings which moves rapidly across space and time and appears quite stylised. Ms Clifford sought to take a current (in the 1980s) sensibility on politics and gender and fuse it with this ostensibly “true” history with a contemporary (for 1618) dramatic style. Designer Jess Curtis in this revival has highlighted this synthesis with her costumes which mix the Golden Age with a 1980s post-punk, New Romantic look.
The adventures of the strutting Duke and affected Quevodo draw in other parties, servants Pablo (Remus Brooks), Maria (Eleanor Fanyinka), the rejected and oddly coiffed Duchess (Florence Roberts, also a Priest), Secretary (Dan Wheeler who also provides some music), the grouchy King (David Verrey) and the prosaic “Mr and Mrs Doge” (David Verrey and Eleanor Fanyinka again). A key role is that of the Sister here played by Tia Bannon and not, unfortunately given the extra dimension this would have brought, the originally cast Josh-Susan Enright. Not that Ms Bannon didn’t try to fully commit, as did her colleagues, to the play. It is just that it is so striking in tone that I wasn’t entirely clear just how “inside” the characters Paul Miller wished them to be. The knowing, and sometimes farcical, tone, the sense that the performers, indeed the whole play, was “looking into” the events as a metaphor or lesson for something else, the decline of Empire and the desire of boys to always go fighting, didn’t completely take over, such that it could just be read as a rapid, and somewhat bitty, and increasingly odd, history play, (where I would guess most of the audience didn’t know the history).
Still once you adjusted to this idiosyncratic form there was stuff to savour and it didn’t drag on, even giving us an interval to ponder what was going on. The Duke doesn’t really do consequences, is locked in the past, sees everything as a contest and takes vanity to extremes. His fading libido is conjoined with that of his country. All in all a prize dickhead not unlike a few of our current crop of deluded politicians. Quevedo’s pen may be mightier than his sword but his fine words don’t necessarily resonate with his master and there are a whole heap of unbuttered parsnips here. The women and servants look on with various degrees of exasperation. Eleanor Mayinka stands out as the sympathetic Maria but maybe just because she is the most sincere character in the play.
So this might be a play whose novelty has played out, or it might be a play that was over-praised in the first place. Or maybe it is, as my Mum would have said, “too clever for its own good”. Or maybe it is a production where the normally very reliable Paul Miller couldn’t quite make up his mind. Or rather where he couldn’t quite pin down this slippery, and odd, fish. Or maybe, for once, the OT space was a hindrance not a help. I think it might be a little bit of all of these things but offsetting this is a spark of invention and bravado that I, for one, am always happy to see. Even if it didn’t quite come off, I can safely say I haven’t ever seen anything like it. And that it itself is no small praise. A counter to the excess of lazy literalism which pollutes the body politic is surely no bad thing.