The Gentleman from Olmedo

Lope de Vega, in a new translation by David Johnson

Watermill Theatre, Newbury

(2003)

Review by Pete Wood

An 'El' of a show. The Watermill's production of Lope De Vega's The Gentleman from Olmedo is apt to leave one punning so, using as it does a new translation by David Johnson whose adaptation of The Dog in the Manger is currently to be seen at The Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

De Vega - who claimed to have written 3,000 plays and who certainly did write 400 - is often referred to as Spain's answer to the Bard. But, to be honest, this play - regarded as his finest by some - is more 'Cid' James than El Cid, consisting of it does of knockabout farce which is driven by a rigid sense of hierarchy, propriety (Catholicism) and the Mediterranean code of machismo.

There is little sense - and here I must confess to only a slight acquaintance with De Vega - of those qualities which set Shakespeare apart, that is: a sense of the tragic, a profound understanding of the human heart and the creation of flesh and blood characters, rather than two-dimensional ciphers.

Don't get me wrong. The Gentleman from Olmedo is great fun. I don't know quite what relation De Vega's writing bears to David Johnson's translation - (clearly quite a few of the jokes are Johnson's and pretty good some of them are too. Viz: "It's not something he gives to any old Tomas, Diego or Jose").

The play opens in grand style as a funereal lament gives way to a Flamenco-style dance. The cast of ten, tightly grouped, begin stamping and clapping before breaking off and dancing in couples. Centre stage, the eponymous hero Alonso and Ines see each other for the first time and instantly fall in love.

It's a terrific, stylish start. Thereafter, the pace flags for a period despite the fusillades of puns which pepper the snappy dialogue and the best efforts of the uniformly fine cast. The true course of love ne'er does run smooth, as the Bard had it, and the fly in this particular pot of ointment it transpires is Rodrigo, a noblemen from Ines' home town of Medina, fierce rival to Olmedo, who already has the blessing of Ines' father. His brother Fernando is also the suitor for Ines' sister Leonor, far less passionate and far more pragmatic.

In desperation, to avoid wedlock with Rodrigo, Ines announces her intention to take holy orders. This sets up De Vega and Johnson for plenty of fun as Fabia, a tinker with a sideline in sorcery, and Tello, Alonso's faithful servant, pass themselves off as, respectively, a nun and a priest, who are hired to help Ines prepare for holy orders but who in reality are there to aid the star-crossed lovers. The laughs follow thick and fast, thanks principally to Michael Matus as Tello who scrambles to hide his total ignorance of Latin with frantic ingenuity.

Nick Barber as Alonso and Marianne Oldham as Ines (El's belle?) make a splendidly handsome couple and there is fine work, particularly from the underclass characters and especially Maggie Shevlin as Fabia. The direction, by Jonathan Munby, is assured and well-paced, ensuring a very enjoyable evening in what must be the most picturesquely set theatre in Britain. Ole!