To call Lope de Vega prolific is an understatement. The ‘Spanish Shakespeare’, a contemporary of the Bard, claimed to have written 1,500 plays, of which some 400 have survived. The Gentleman from Olmedo is considered to be the best of his innovative ‘tragic-comedies’.
It’s easy to see why in David Johnston’s pacy translation and Jonathan Munby’s stirring, atmospheric production. From the first notes of Maggie Shevlin’s haunting opening ballad, the world of 16th-century Spain is vividly evoked. It’s peopled by feuding, hot-headed nobles, lovelorn beauties and a couple of conniving, cunning rascals (of both sexes) who Shakespeare would have been proud to have conjured. And, although it’s clear from the outset that the end will be tragic, there’s plenty of crowd-pleasing comedy on the way.
There are echoes of Shakespeare in the plot. The action is set in Medina, rival town to Olmedo, home of the eponymous hero, Alonso. He’s in love with the fair Ines of Medina, who returns his affection, but his rival Rodrigo is from Medina. Rodrigo and his brother Fernando seem ideal choices for husbands for Ines and her sister Leonor. So Ines pretends she wishes to take Holy Orders to avoid the wrong marriage, with the help of Fabia, the local fixer masquerading as a nun, and Alonso’s servant Tello as her Latin teacher.
Sadly, it all goes horribly wrong, but not before Alonso triumphs in the bullrings of Medina and wins the favour of the King of Castile in a cleverly realised scene, thanks to Mike Britton’s simple but effective design.
There’s no weak link in this company of ten. Nick Barber’s Alonso and Marianne Oldham’s Ines make a handsome, ardent and ultimately tragic couple. Catherine Cusack’s dignified, sensible Leonor is the perfect foil to her more impetuous sister, a relationship mirrored in that of her lover Fernando (Drew Mulligan) and his scheming brother Rodrigo (Daniel Coonan).
The comic honours go to Maggie Shevlin’s supremely devious Fabia and Michael Matus’s faithful Tello, surely the pattern for all resourceful servants. Patricia Gannon does a fine double act above and below stairs as the sisters’ maidservant and the Queen of Castille. Jonathan Oliver and Stephen Ley make the most of their roles as dignified, well-meaning monarch and father, respectively.
The company is an ensemble who will also perform Goldoni’s The Venetian Twins later this season. This exciting start bodes well for their time together.
- Judi Herman