In Stratford-upon-Avon tonight (14 April 2004), the Royal Shakespeare Company launches its much-touted Spanish Golden Age season, four new translations of rarely performed plays from the 16th- and 17th-century (See News, 30 Sep 2003). The season, performed in repertory by a 20-strong ensemble, continues in the Swan Theatre until 2 October 2004, after which it is due to visit Madrid’s Teatro Espanol.

The Spanish Golden Age season - curated by RSC associate director Laurence Boswell, whose recent West End credits include This Is Our Youth, Up for Grabs, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and The Holy Terror, which opens tonight in London - builds on the success of the Olivier Award-winning season of rarely performed Jacobean plays, which transferred to the West End last year. For the new project, Boswell and RSC dramaturg Paul Sirett worked through more than 100 plays from the era, commissioning 30 literal translations.

Opening the season, Lope de Vega's 1613 social comedy The Dog in the Manger, directed by Boswell himself, begins previews tonight (14 April 2004), before opening on 21 April and continuing until 2 October. The story about a countess who compromises her honour receives a new version care of poet, journalist and editor Craig Raine.

It’s followed by Tamar's Revenge, running from 5 May to 2 October 2004 (previews from 28 April). Tirso de Molina's telling of the story of the House of David brought to tragedy by crimes against itself is newly translated by writer and poet James Fenton. After an absence of ten years, Simon Usher (Herons, Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads) returns to the RSC to direct the production.

The third production in the RSC season is House of Desires by poet nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, one of the few female playwrights of the age. The new version of the romantic farce, involving a brother and sister entangled in a web of love with four others, is written by Bryony Lavery (Frozen) and directed by Shared Experience's Nancy Meckler, making her RSC debut. It runs from 8 July to 1 October 2004 (previews from 30 June).

The final production in the Spanish Golden Age repertoire is Pedro, The Great Pretender by Miguel de Cervantes (best known for literary classic Don Quixote), opening 9 September 2004 (previews from 1 September). The new version of the play, which revolves around a lovable trickster whose journey leads him to find his true vocation on the stage, is by Philip Osment and directed by Mike Alfreds, founding director of Shared Experience, who also makes his RSC debut.

A fifth play, Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s Daughter of the Air, translated by Sarah Woods, will be presented at the end of the season as part of the RSC’s soon-to-be-unveiled New Work Festival and transmitted on BBC Radio 3 on 28 November 2004.

The 20-strong ensemble for the Spanish Golden Age season includes John Ramm (of National Theatre of Brent renown), Joseph Millson (TV’s Peak Practice) and Joanna van Kampen (radio’s The Archers).

As part of the schedule, on 24 July 2004, the RSC will attempt to recreate the theatregoing conditions of the era, when Spanish audiences were divided by gender, with men seated in the stalls and women in the balcony and gallery in order to discourage young couples from copying the bawdy antics on stage.

Meanwhile Newbury’s Watermill Theatre, just voted one of the UK’s top ten regional theatres in’s current Big Debate poll, also gives its nod to the Spanish Golden Age tonight, with its new production of Lope de Vega’s The Gentlemen from Olmedo, directed by Jonathan Munby. It runs until 22 May and is followed, from 26 May to 10 July 2004, by The Venetian Twins, written by de Vega’s Italian near-contemporary Carlo Goldoni. The latter is also directed by Munby and performed by the same company.

- by Terri Paddock