Nun so madcap as Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz - at least in her imagination. This Mexican 17th century sister has conjured a hilarious plot about scions of the Spanish nobility madly in love with each other, all confused as to the objects of their desire and locked up - often literally - in the same house in Toledo. I could recount the plot (well, to be honest, I’m not sure I could) but that’s not the point.
To put it simply, Dona Ana is in love with Don Carlos, but he is pursuing Dona Leonor while Don Juan has the hots for Dona Ana whose brother Don Pedro is Don Carlos’ rival for Leonor and so on through threats, intrigues and mayhem to a more or less satisfactory conclusion.
There is a set-piece scene played by the muddled lovers as if in pitch darkness but brilliantly lit so that we can see knives and bodies all but collide. But this isn’t just a romantic farce, at least it isn’t in this version, cheekily translated by Catherine Boyle and wittily directed at a furious pace by Nancy Meckler. It is also a satire on honour codes of the period and Spanish male pride, with some deft swipes at Calderon on the way. And it is a celebration of servant power, for most of the proceedings are stage-managed by Dona Ana’s crafty maid Celia (sparky Katherine Kelly), whose belt jingles with the keys she uses to isolate her less sharp-brained aristocratic betters.
The play opens in a convent where a nun sedately writes, but in no time she has been transformed into beauteous Dona Leonor (fervently played by Rebecca Johnson). The swaggering male suitors Don Carlos (Joseph Millson) and Don Juan (Oscar Pearce) are all ludicrous braggadocio, while Don Pedro (William Buckhurst) sweats anxiously under his glossed hair-do.
As Don Carlos’ servant, Castano, dumpy, toothy Simon Trinder has a ball, especially in his slow appropriation of female garments to transform himself into Leonor (never mind why). Trinder is an inventive comic, improvising to take advantage of specific people and theatre decor: in female garb he wickedly apes a gilded bare-breasted Muse. When characters address audience members directly (is there a Globe effect at work here?) the pay-back is minimal, except when Trinder persuades an elegant lady in a box to apply his lipstick.
Whether this play in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Spanish Golden Age season, first seen at Stratford in 2004, is as it was written by Sor Juana I don’t know, but like everyone else I was laughing too much to mind.
- Heather Neill
The following 3 star review dates from July 2004 and this production’s earlier run at the Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon.
This season may serve, as an earlier programme reminds us, of the close similarities between the theatre of Shakespeare and that of contemporary Spain. But it also highlights the vast difference too. House of Desires is, in truth, slight stuff. But in a clear and vigorous production by Shared Experience company director Nancy Meckler, it’s also immensely enjoyable.
The aristocratic Dona Ana is loved by Don Juan. She did receive his attentions at first but, finding him too easy a prize, has now transferred her affections to Don Carlos. Unfortunately for her, he loves Dona Leonor who is in turn loved by Don Pedro, brother of Dona Ana. All clear?
Fate and a bungled elopement bring the fleeing Dona Leonor, Don Carlos and his servant Castano under Don Pedro and Dona Ana’s roof. Mendacity, machinations and comic mayhem ensue as Don Pedro and Dona Ana plan to separate the embattled lovers for their own desires.
At two-and-a-half hours long with one interval, the play whips along and it’s clear from the off that we’re in confident hands. The action plays out on a stage and against a backdrop of burnished metal, the latter bare except for shelves crammed with candles, icons and the like.
The highlight of the first half is a brilliant scene in which the stage lights are further raised to signify darkness, the characters stumbling around misidentifying one another. That of the second, a bravura turn by Trinder as Castano who, sent on a kamikaze mission by his master, dresses up in drag, convinced this is the only way he can possibly escape with his life.