This production and its in-rep siblings Goethe’s Iphigenia and Marivaux’s The Surprise of Love constitute something of a calling card and mark a significant change of direction at Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio. Having been both a receiving house for touring companies from the fringier end of things and a producing house for second runs of contemporary plays like Gagarin’s Way and local new writing, the 100-odd seater has severely cut back its visitors’ schedule and is instead to produce six plays a year, programmed in two lengthy rep seasons.
For the first of these seasons, the Ustinov’s new Artistic Director, Laurence Boswell, has chosen three UK premieres of European ‘classics’, including this Calderon comedy set in the honour-obsessed world of 17th-century Madrid. Boswell, of course, has form with Spanish theatre: he directed 1993’s Olivier-winning Spanish Golden Age Season at the Gate and returned to similar pastures with another season for the RSC in 2004. Not unexpectedly, his production of this – his own – new translation of The Phoenix is fluent, sure-footed and intelligent.
It needs to be. Calderon’s play is a breakneck romp, full of preposterous coincidences, people hiding in cupboards and jumping off balconies, and a tangled web of interweaving sub-plots. Drawn from the same pool of stock Renaissance yarns that provided Shakespeare with such rich inspiration, it could easily be interpreted as a homage to – or mash-up of – our William’s lighter comedies, from Much Ado and Love’s Labour’s Lost through to The Taming of the Shrew. All the requisite characters are present and correct: the smart-minded servants Ines and Moscatel, the love-struck Don Juan, the love-denying Don Alonso, the ‘difficult’ older sister Beatriz, the put-upon love interest Leonor, the foppish rival Don Luis and the confused, Brabantio-like dad Don Pedro. So too are the situations and the switchback wordplay. The only difference, perhaps, is that Calderon’s characters tend to be more strictly functional than Shakespeare’s: they’re not two-dimensional caricatures, by any means, but nor do they have the solidity and groundedness of, say, Benedick and Beatrice.
What also becomes apparent is that Calderon has less faith in his audience. There’s an awful lot of explication here. There is, in fact, an awful lot of words all round, and at times it’s hard not to wonder, like the Emperor in Amadeus, whether there are, quite simply, ‘too many notes’. No doubt Calderon’s insistence on explaining each plot twist in triplicate arose from the circumstances in which his plays were originally produced, but a modern translation could probably risk at least cutting down on the ‘this is what I’m going to do… this is what I’m doing… this is what I’ve just done’ verbiage.
That said, as a production, Boswell’s is close to faultless and there are some first-rate individual performances alongside the equally first-rate ensemble work. Milo Twomey exudes cynical insouciance as Don Alonso before, somewhat inevitably, changing his tune; as Moscatel, Peter Bramhill is all pragmatic wisdom and cunning asides (and yes, there’s something of Blackadder lurking in his relationship with his boss Alonso); while Frances McNamee pulls off the most dramatic transformation of all, as Beatriz sheds her malapropisms and poetry in favour of genuine romance. A word too for David Fielder as Don Pedro – whose voice sounds as if he’s been smoking treacle from a very young age – and Samantha Robinson as Ines, the servant whose spiky good sense helps to precipitate the happy ending.