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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
by Lizzie Loveridge

I have never seen such vivid grace married to some dirty-finger-nailed farm hand.
-- the Commander
Jackie Morrison as Casilda and David Harewood as the Commander
(Photo: Keith Pattison)

Rufus Norris and the Young Vic have launched this vibrant production of Lope de Vega's early seventeenth century play, Peribanez, about the virtues of rural life and a noble peasant who defends his wife's honour against the odds.

Lope de Vega (1562 - 1635) was a prolific Spanish playwright with a fascinating life which itself would make an epic novel. Born into a family of craftsmen but orphaned at an early age, he went to university, was secretary to the Dukes of Alba and Sessa and sailed with the Spanish Armada against England in 1588. According to sources, Lope was a poet, a keen gardener, the husband of two wives and the father of from six to fourteen children. He later joined the priesthood and the Inquisition. He wrote over 900 plays, 400 of which are still in existence. When he died, his state funeral lasted nine days. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. Many of Lope's themes were picked up by his countryman, Calderon de la Barca (born 1600), who in turn was inspired later French playwrights. Both Calderon and Lope were rediscovered by the German Romantic movement in the nineteenth century.

While Tanya Ronder's modern translation has preserved the lyricism of the original, she makes no attempt to recreate the verse. Her translation has a natural fluidity and the skill is in it not sounding like it was written first in another language. Nor does Ronder use seventeenth century speech patterns. I was conscious of how redolent the text is of Spain: all those wonderful references to the smell of lemon verbena and myrtle.

Many Spanish plays of this period are concerned with duty, honour and loyalty and Peribanez is no exception. It is a celebration of peasant culture, showing the moral integrity of the dutiful peasant. Its t tale of an overlord, the Commander (David Harewood) who threatens to take as his mistress the beautiful Casilda (Jackie Morrison) wife of a peasant farmer Peribanez (Michael Nardone) after the Commander is gored by a bull and carried to their home. With the help of his aide de camp, Leonardo (Mark Lockyer), the Commander plots to send Peribanez to war leaving Casilda unprotected.

Rufus Norris' opening scene reminded me of a pinata. As a paper screen, which covers the wedding scene played in shadow, is cut through to reveal the couple, Peribanez and Casilda. Ian MacNeil's design is a red swathe of an asymmetrical platform which traverses the stage, a stairway at one end, a platform above. It allows the villagers to gather in the background ever present, showing the hubbub of village life. There is the music of the village, the noise, even the animals, donkeys and horses played by people. The set also allows the Commander to play above the throng of the peasantry as do the King and Queen in the problematic final scene. Played in modern dress, it is interesting to see how little life has changed for the peasant farming class. The third act has quite a lot of directorial tongue in cheek humour as we arrive at the rather inevitable triumph of good over lust.

The play was written to please an audience not of noblemen but of farmers so Peribanez behaves with honour throughout. However in order to meet and be absolved of his crime by the royal couple, here played as a kind of Prince Edward and Sophie, Duchess of Wessex, (Gregory Fox-Murphy and Rhiannon Meades), Peribanez has to be knighted. I was fascinated by the Queen's offer to Casilda to give her some dresses - "Four, should be enough, " she says.

A most interesting production of a rare play.

Written by Lope de Vega
Translated by Tanya Ronder
Directed by Rufus Norris

Starring: David Harewood
With: Michael Nardone, Jackie Morrison, David Harewood, Mali Harries, Mark Lockyer, Paul Hamilton, Rhiannon Meades, Jason Baughan, Robert Willox, Michael O'Connor, Gregory Fox-Murphy, Vincent Patrick, John A Sampson
Designer: Ian MacNeil
Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher
Sound: Paul Arditti
Music: Orlando Gough
Choreographt: Scarlett Mackmin
Running time: Two hours forty minutes with one interval .
Box Office: 020 7928 6363
Booking to 7th June 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th May 2003 performance at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (Tube Station: Waterloo/Southwark)

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