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A CurtainUp London Review
House of Desires
by Lizzie Loveridge
Three of the four plays that made up the Royal Shakespeare Company's Spanish Golden Age have transferred from the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon to the Playhouse Theatre in London. Nancy Meckler, Artistic Director of Shared Experience the company known for its award winning physical theatre, chose to direct House of Desires a translation from the Spanish Los empeņos de una casa which literally means the trials of a noble house. The original in Spanish was written in 1683 by a remarkable woman, a Mexican nun Sor Juana.
It seems that from her convent cell, Sor Juana ran something resembling a literary salon where she was visited by writers and academics. House of Desires is a romantic comedy which satirises the formal courtship and etiquette of the society that Sor Juana knew. Nancy Meckler's direction underlines and emphasises the "sending up" of the social convention of seventeenth century Spanish nobility.
The heroine of House of Desires is Doņa Leonor (Rebecca Johnson), a poor but beautiful and learned girl who is admired for her scholarship as much as for her physical attraction. Don Pedro (William Buckhurst) pretends to rescue her from a debacle of his own making, but is in fact separating her from her lover Don Carlos (Joseph Millson), and brings Leonor to his sister Doņa Ana's (Claire Cox) house. Doņa Ana falls for the handsome Don Carlos and rejects her own suitor, the popinjay Don Juan (Oscar Pearce). In view of Doņa Ana's kindness to him, Don Carlos starts to pays court to her and waiver in his affection for Leonor. His servant Castaņo (Simon Trinder) is heavily involved in intrigue and later disguises himself as the beautiful Leonor to divert Don Pedro. Doņa Ana'a maid Celia (Katherine Kelly) is mischievous and meddling. On reading this synopsis you may now be identifying with Doņa Ana when she says, "Has there ever been such confusion?".
The production is brimming with very camp scenes when these self absorbed lovers question which is the greatest trial of the sorrows of being in love, being separated from one's perfect lover, unrequited love, being jealous or maybe the most tragic of all, to be poor. There are wonderful moments from Nancy Meckler's directorial imagination. A scene stumbling about in the dark is played so that audience can see the faces and figures of the players as they grope about, feeling the air with their hands, until a servant arrives with a candle and all are revealed. When Leonor first appears onstage, she transforms from the quietly writing nun at the back of the stage by stepping out of her habit, Meckler's way of telling us which character our author identified with. Don Juan, the Spanish blade spins his duelling knives as if they are six shooters as Meckler mercilessly parodies all proud, machismo noblemen. There is plenty to laugh at as the actors pull a wry face here or cast a coy look or confide in the audience in an aside. Catherine Boyle's new translation also helps to keep the comedy fresh with topical allusion: the servant Castaņo wishes there could be a "Calderonian twist to the plot".
The ensemble performances are fine throughout but I particularly liked Joseph Millson's earnest, heart warming Don Carlos and seeing Simon Trinder's development as a fine clown. The costume design uses the best of Velasquez with some wonderfully hooped skirts. The set is polished metal which can be lit from behind and below in slotted lines emphasising the criss-crossing of the romantic tangles. To the rear is a collection of candles and mirrors, dolls and Spanish ephemera, intricate and detailed. With the Royal Shakespeare Company re-establishing itself with three London bases, Shakespeare's plays at the Albery, the Spanish comedies at the Playhouse and new writing at the Soho, it seems that once more the RSC's star is in the ascendance.
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Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
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