Claus von Billow Theatre
Throughout this summer, the RSC in Stratford-on-Avon will be presenting four plays from the Spanish Golden Age. I have had great pleasure in seeing one of them and have been profoundly bored by another. Tirso de Molina’s Tamar’s Revenge is about King David, Amnon, his eldest son, who is an incestuous rapist, and the rest of the family who are an ambitious murderous lot. Catholic Herald readers are unlikely to be as familiar with the Old Testament as your critic, who had the misfortune to be born into darkest Lutheranism, but it is salutary to be reminded just how brutal and bellicose the Holy Land was then. Nothing has changed.
But Lope de Vega’s The Dog in the Manger is pure enchantment, a comic masterpiece. One must hope that the RSC will include London when this play goes on tour. The central character is Diana, Countess of Belflor, who lives in Naples when that city was still ruled by Spain. She is played by Rebecca Johnson and when she falls in love with her dashing and talented young secretary she does it with such elegant panache and feminine guile and humour that everyone in the audience immediately falls in love with her. So does the secretary, of course, and although much more appropriate suitors are available, love prevails.
Time and space may prevent me from seeing another of this quartet from Spain’s Golden Age, though I would be tempted by Pedro the Great Pretender. It is by none other than the famous Miguel Cervantes. Finally there is Calderon de la Barca, whose Daughter of the Air will be broadcast on Radio 3 in November. This gives me an excuse for mentioning that wonderful playwright’s deeply religious and moving double bill in the Comédie Française production this spring. In Theatrum Mundi, God, “the author”, asks his characters — the King, the Rich Man, The Worker, the Poor Man, the Child, Wisdom and Beauty — to act, and to act well. Death comes at the end and each is rewarded by God in accordance with his performance. In Le Proces en separation de l’Ame et du corps we encounter the eternal soul, born from the spirit of God, and then united with the body to create life. Calderon was a poet, a theologian and a monk. His two plays were sensitively adapted and directed for the always highly professional company of actors at the Comédie Française.
It is sad that one of Britain’s great publicly funded theatres, the RSC, did not include Christianity in its season of 17th-century Spanish plays, but relegated Calderon to the elitist Radio 3. The National Theatre, of course, went one step further and produced an aggressively antireligious double bill for its family Christmas programme. Man’s fear of death and the pain and sorrow in life are bearable because of the belief that there is something beyond. If you want the transcendental go to the Comédie Française, not to Mel Gibson’s Hollywood.
Colin McPherson, the Irish dramatist who brought us The Weir, has happily abandoned the formula of each of his characters conveying their problems in monologues. His new play Shining City is a joint production of the Royal Court and Dublin’s Gate Theatre under their brilliant and demonic director, Michael Colgen. We meet a Catholic priest (Michael McElhatton) who has lost his faith and who has now abandoned the woman with whom he has a child, and then picks up a young man in the public park. Clearly with so many problems of his own he is well qualified to counsel others, one such being a hilariously unsuccessful adulterer, who has lost his wife and thinks he sees her ghost. In the last few seconds of this seemingly haphazard plot there is a blinding moment of great theatrical effect reminding us how every human being carries the burden of their own past unkind acts. Strong stuff.
Moving on to Northern Ireland, the Soho Theatre has produced two plays, Belfast Blues and Protestants. Sadly the latter, which is the more ambitious and which takes the Catholic perspective is also the most biased. A pity, but worth the effort.
The always enterprising Bush Theatre has also brought us a play with a vitally important political subject. Damages is by a new playwright, Steve Thompson, and has a fine cast. The subject is the tabloid press. Should “a matter of public interest” really mean “anything the public will find interesting” as interpreted by mendacious, envious hacks and their greedy employers? Sorry, I am biased. But so are they.