Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 21 January 2014

Don Gil of the Green Breeches

Arcola Theatre ⋄ 9th January - 15th March 2014

Twists and counter-twists.

Alice Saville

No one could accuse Tirso de Molina’s 1615 farce of being straightforward – as though to prove that writing comedy is a serious business, his plot is heavy with cross-dressing, mistaken identity, foolish servants, ghosts and orchard frolics. As twists and countertwists tie cast and audience up in ever more implausible knots, the author’s ingenuity is by turns awe-inspiring and wearing, as he casts a self-consciously fantastical tale that even his own characters exclaim “could make the tales of Merlin sound like fact.”

The play is the first to be performed as part of a Spanish Golden Age season at the Arcola. We’re eased into the plot’s frenetic whirl gently. Don Martin throws his lover Donna Juana over in favour of wooing the rich and lovely Donna Ines, who conveniently lives in faraway Madrid, and won’t spot that he’s using the assumed name Don Gil for the purpose. Unfortunately, Donna Juana isn’t to be outwitted, and makes for the same city in disguise as a man. By sharing Don Martin’s pseudonym of Don Gil, she strives to muddy the marital waters just enough to prevent him from marrying. But when her male alter-ego’s gallant flirtations start to snare hearts, tempers fray and complications abound. Donna Juana runs between two houses and two servants to take on male and female false identities in turn, and muddies the waters still further by spreading conflicting rumours about her real self’s fate.

Though the plot leaves those it entangles tearing their hair with each new twist, the text’s characterisation is fairly straightforward – most notably, Donna Juana is largely untroubled by guilt at her deceptions, and Donna Ines and her daffy friend Donna Clara fall in and out of love at the drop of a felted cap. Mehmet Ergen’s direction heightens this simplicity. Katie Lightfoot’s Donna Ines is all vague handwaving beauty and vapidity, Annie Hemingway’s Donna Clara is an awkward harpy in round glasses. Hedydd Dylan as Donna Juana has a little more to work with – she deftly balances pantomime stylings with boyish sincerity as she treads the uncertain line between being plausible enough to take in the two ladies, and comically unschooled in swagger. She’s helped by her servant Caramanchel’s emperor’s-new-clothes observations – Jim Bywater is genuinely funny as a knowing fool who’s sure his master isn’t all he seems, calling Don Gil a eunuch and goblin by turns.

All this cross-dressing is the stuff on which queer and gender theorists soggier dreams are made – there’s something genuinely intriguing about the proposition, however much Caramanchel’s perspective undermines it, that Donna Juana is able to escape imprisoning female gentility to woo two ladies more effectively than her male rivals. Mehmet Ergen pulls out the barely hidden subtext to make Donnas Clara and Juana share an unexpected kiss, and the erotic entanglements linger on even as the plot accelerates at dizzying pace. But these additions also add to the play’s sense of unreality, with the deliberately vague setting and rapidly switching scenes making it hard to invest in a world lacking the staid, stiff stereotypes of historical Spanish nobility, even as structures to be reacted to.

The play is an odd, intriguing mix of ingenious literary exuberance and striking self-consciousness – characters announce their fears of losing the audience at each new twist, or are entirely floored by a hairpin bend. What’s missing is the time and space to stop, and grow to care about the characters. Donna Juana and Don Martin are both so relentlessly, inventively duplicitous that their struggle is more wizard’s duel than lovers’ quarrel, and their grounding in seventeenth-century Spanish nobility feels as vague and nominal as the whole persona of Don Gil, resting shiftingly on a pair of slashed and tied green breeches.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

Don Gil of the Green Breeches Show Info


Directed by Mehmet Ergen

Cast includes Nick Barber, Jim Bywater, Hedydd Dylan, Annie Hemingway, William Hoyland, Katie Lightfoot, Frances McNamee, Chris Andrew Mellon, Doug Rao, Simon Scardifield

Link http://www.arcolatheatre.com/

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