Born just two years before Shakespeare, De Vega, along with Cervantes and Calderon, was at the forefront of the Spanish "Golden Age" of drama and, frankly, he put the man from Stratford in the shade in terms of output, producing anything between 400 and 800 plays during a hectic life. Peribanez - tackling all those gritty Moor themes of passion, prejudice, honour, jealousy and rage - is considered one of his best, frequently revived in Spain. In this country, it's rarely performed and little known, though not for long thanks to the Young Vic.
The play opens on the wedding day of peasants Peribanez and Casilda whose merrymaking and richly descriptive professions of love are interrupted when the town's Commander is carried in, unconscious after a run-in with a bull. On awaking, the Commander mistakes Casilda for an angel and falls passionately in love with her, soon resembling - in more ways than one - the mad beast that first pursued and felled him.
Young director Rufus Norris makes some interesting choices in this relaxed but engaging production. His hard-working Spanish peasants sport a broad range of Gaelic accents as well as their colourful modern Mediterranean costumes, while the aristo officers are distinctly English. But the apparent class distinctions and values, called into question by De Vega's text (and Tanya Ronder's poetic new translation), are further eroded by Norris' use of Ian McNeil's hierarchical, two-tier set and his multiple role assignments.
So, for instance, the King of Spain (Gregory Fox-Murphy) in one scene may in the next be demoted to a minstrel for hire or, baser still, a mule, with a socially inferior peasant sat atop his shoulders wielding the whip. The ensemble handle these duties well, several also displaying instrumental expertise, with some lovely guitar and horn tunes (Orlando Gough) effecting a subtle musical backdrop to the onstage action.
As for the points of the love triangle, David Harewood (reminding us again of Shakespeare's Othello, having memorably played the Moor in an acclaimed National Theatre production) is highly watchable as the Commander, made so desperate by unrequited love that we can't deny him our sympathies. As the lowly peasant farmer of the title, Michael Nardone claims the lion's share of dignity, his understated performance providing a stillness at the heart of the production, while Jackie Morrison is touchingly compromised as the object of both men's desires.
However, the real stand-out - very nearly, show- let alone scene-stealing - performance is delivered by Mark Lockyer as the Commander's disingenuous aid Leonardo. Looking like a young, uniformed Laurence Olivier, Lockyer prompts guffaws with the mere hitch of an eyebrow or a drawling 'yes', without ever overegging it.
- Terri Paddock