Madness in Valencia, by the classic Spanish writer Lope de Vega, opens at the Trafalgar Studios following a successful run at the White Bear last year. The new venue, in its former incarnation as the Whitehall Theatre, was synonymous with British farce. The play follows in that comic tradition with larger than life characters who spend much of the play in their underwear pretending to be someone else, and a plot with more flourishes and turns than a flamenco dancer.
The play begins with Floriano (an excellent performance from William Belchambers), bursting noisily onto the stage and into the city of Valencia. He is on the run having murdered a nobleman. His best friend Valerio finds him refuge in the city’s asylum. There he meets Erifila (Kathryn Beaumont), a noblewoman who has been robbed of all her belongings - and a significant amount of her clothing - and proclaimed mad. Both pretending to be mad, they fall in love and discover that each is in fact sane.
It’s a curious place, the Valencia asylum. There's the odd shackle and chain, as one might expect in a Renaissance madhouse, but precious little suffering or brutality. It is presided over by a doctor whose enthusiastic squirms and capers suggest he is a refugee from Blackadder. Moreover the constant bright lighting does little to help the impression that it’s more of a singles’ holiday camp where everyone is after a mate.
Love’s tangled web provides the rest of the plot. All the other women in the play also fall for Floriano, and decide that they will act mad in order to woo him. Even honest Valerio, visiting Floriano, is smitten by Erifila too and decides to pose as a relative in order to claim custody of her. This is the only spot of darkness in the play: Floriano must sacrifice his beloved Erifila to Valerio in return for him having saved his life. For a moment tragedy threatens, but a happy ending ensues, even for Laida the maid who insists on a rerun of the ending so she too can get a husband.
David Johnston’s freshly irreverent translation brings the play smartly into the present day with contempory references and jokes. Director Simon Evans takes the exuberance of the text as his key and brings such energy and movement to the play that it threatens at times to burst out of the confines of the studio space. However, his use of the framing device of a company putting on a play could do with more delicate handling.
Improvised exchanges with the audience are always risky. They can give the evening the feel of a student production unless done well. But that said, this is a funny, bouncy play performed with enthusiasm and gusto in the best of the comic tradition. And, like the old Whitehall farces, you can take your Auntie to see it without too many blushes.