First staged at the end of last year at the Theatre Royal Bath, Laurence Boswell’s ambitious Spanish Golden Age Season is now playing at the Arcola before going on to the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. Featuring three new translations of lesser-known works by major playwrights from the seventeenth century, performed by the same company of actors, the season celebrates a great period of world drama unfairly neglected in this country.
Playing in repertory with Tirso de Molina’s Don Gil of the Green Breeches and Lope de Vega’s Punishment Without Revenge, A Lady of Little Sense shows the latter writer in much lighter mood with a romantic comedy that has echoes of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
The none too serious plot revolves around a wealthy man, Don Octavio, trying to marry off his two daughters: the elder Nise is highly accomplished though demanding, while the younger Finea seems remarkably backward but her dead uncle has settled a considerable dowry on her to attract prospective husbands. Foremost among those paying court are the dashing but impecunious Laurencio and the romantically hesitant Liseo, who decide to swap brides but their gentlemen’s agreement does not go according to plan.
A Lady of Little Sense may not be very sophisticated in its treatment of sexual politics, or very subtle in its examination of psychological motivation, but David Johnston’s sprightly and colloquial version brings out the work’s entertaining exuberance. There is little of the Shrew’s dark ambivalence in this more straightforward tale of sparring sisters and rival suitors, but Lope’s cleverly crafted play is full of good-hearted humour that depicts the absurdities of courting rituals in enjoyably uncynical fashion.
Boswell has championed Spanish classic drama before in similar seasons with the Gate and the RSC, and he understands how to make it accessible to modern audiences; here his pacey direction takes us with the flow of the action.
Mark Bailey’s elegant panelled design, with curtains for quick entrances and exits, sets the scene well, while Jon Nicholls’ music and Lucy Cullingford’s choreography add much colour with their Spanish-style songs and dance, as the sisters try to outperform each other.
Frances McNamee makes an engagingly transparent Finea, as we see her metamorphosing from amusing childlike uncouthness to a touchingly belated maturity under the warming influence of love, though it is not clear if the mercenary motives of Nick Barber’s chancer Laurencio have softened into something more heartfelt. In nice contrast, Katie Lightfoot’s apparently poised and sensible Nise unravels in sexual jealousy to reveal a domineering and manipulative side, which may well exploit the ineffective adoration of Simon Scardifield’s Liseo. And as Octavio William Hoyland cuts an increasingly frustrated figure as father and host while his patriarchal authority is made mock of in his own riotous household.