The set for the RSC’s Dog in the Manger looks anything but portable. And yet, with its gilded floor and vertical doors, it fits perfectly into its new home at the West End's Playhouse Theatre, where it has arrived via Stratford, Newcastle and Madrid. And in its shiny opulent surface Es Devlin has created the perfect metaphor to reflect the world of Lope de Vega’s play. It’s a world where status and appearances are everything.
We find ourselves in the morally tight-laced home of Diana, who is feared by her servants and cold as ice. That is, until she discovers her secretary Teodoro and one of her ladies in waiting, Marcela, are courting. This knowledge acts as a catalyst to fire Diana’s passions and transform her into the Dog in the Manger of the title – her love is a riddle of contradictions, a battle between her heart and her head.
Teodoro’s love being opportunistic, he realises he can only stand to gain from such an alliance. But Diana knows all too well the impropriety of this match, Teodoro being well below her station. Yet she vacillates between her desires and her sense, casting all the other players bobbing on the waves she creates each time she changes her mind. And she does, a lot.
The consequences are highly amusing, verging on farcical as Teodoro veers between Diana and Marcela. Add into the mix two ridiculous suitors, a bawdy sidekick and some very poignant and touching musings on the nature of love, and you have a rich piece of theatre to match the quality of Shakespeare.
The performances are all strong. John Ramm is wonderful as the ridiculous and verbose Marquis Ricardo who seeks Diana’s hand. It's a credit to Vega’s play, David Johnston’s translation and Ramm that this character feels incredibly modern. He’s desperate to impress but doesn’t quite get it right – like a Golden Age David Brent.
In a play that's so full of comedy, it’s important to have some emotional anchoring, and both Rebecca Johnson and Claire Cox offer this in their sensitive performances as Diana and Marcela. Cox is the beating heart of the piece, her Marcela wound up in frustration at her powerlessness, but she still loves Teodoro completely despite his disloyalty.
In truth, I saw this production in Stratford and wasn’t hugely impressed. It felt then as though the comedy was at the expense of the play as written. But, in its travels, it seems to have grown with age and matured into a much more layered and thought-provoking piece, that is still very funny.
- Margaret Costello
The following 4 star review dates from April 2004 and this production’s earlier run at the Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon.
It’s a pleasure to be able to give a resounding three cheers for the latest production by the RSC, rather than a qualified two, too often the case of late.
The Dog in the Manger by 17th-century Spanish playwright Lope De Vega, is the opening salvo in the company's Spanish Golden Age season and, if the rest of the programme is anything like as good, the company should have another hit on its hands akin to its award-winning 2002 'Jacobethan' season.
One is tempted to reflect that the company has been most at ease recently performing Shakespeare's comedies, or works by his contemporaries. Certainly Manger spills over with confidence, clarity and sheer zing which carries all before it and which had the audience I was in roaring with delight.
The dog in the manger in question is Diana, a Neapolitan noblewoman and veritable frigidaire, who, like her goddess namesake, seems set on a life of chastity until the revelation that her secretary Teodoro has the hots for Marcela, a maid-in-waiting, tips her into a paroxysm of love and jealousy.
Rebecca Johnson (most recently seen in Mourning Becomes Electra and Edmond at the National) is fabulous as Diana, beautifully capturing the sheer bewilderment of an ingénue at sea in a tempest of conflicting emotions. Love battles it out with honour which forbids marriage to one so far beneath her.
On the receiving end of all this sturm and drang is Joseph Millson, who’s equally adept at conveying the delight, terror and utter confusion at his mistress's rapid and repeated volte-faces, now rejecting his former love Marcela (the excellent Claire Cox), now wooing, only to spurn her once more.
There are terrific supporting turns too, notably from John Ramm (one half of the National Theatre of Brent), who’s wildly funny as the Marquis, one of the rival suitors for Diana's hand, and Simon Trinder as Tristan, Teodoro's wily manservant, whose performance for some may well be the highlight.
I failed to warm initially to David Johnston's translation, which seemed a little clunky, but my misgivings were swiftly dispelled by the sheer class and brio of Laurence Boswell's production. The costume is period; the evening a delight.