The Dog in the Manger

Lope de Vega, translated by David Johnson
Rogues Gallery Theatre Company
Hoxton Hall
(2008)

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Director Oliver Rose starts this inaugural Rogues Gallery production with a sudden black-out of the house, a clap of thunder and a mad rush of actors through the auditorium, and he keeps it going at a cracking pace, though it sometimes gets carried away in unnecessary activity.

Hoxton Hall is one of the few performances spaces in London that has the same kind of configuration as the corral theatres of Spain's 'Golden Age' and, with the Hall's shallow stage extended into the house by designer Kate Guinness, her black and white setting with two levels gave the performers a close rapport with their audience, though swishing her white drapes to and from across the set was a pointless interruption except when used for a shadow effect to suggest a larger company.

This (mainly) young company, formed by a group actors eager to create their own work rather than sit around waiting for a call from their agent and who rehearse understudies ready to step in if someone takes off for a paying job, includes several with National Youth Theatre experience which perhaps accounts for their proficiency in playing full on to the audience. De Vega's play demands that sharing.

Playing in modern dress made it more difficult to have sympathy with its Countess Diana (Helen Beaumont), in love with her secretary Teodoro (Alex Marx) but too conscious of status to permit herself to accept him, and points up what a shit Teodoro is in the way he treats her lady-in-waiting Marcella (Sarah Sweeney), who seems the innocent until she grabs at second-best fellow servant when rejected. Except for an aging aristo (Christopher Peacock), who is deluded into believing Teodoro is a long-lost son, the countess's other suitors and almost everyone are a pretty nasty lot, but they provide the audience with lots of laughs in this acerbic look at the way people manipulate sexual attraction and supposed affection to their own advantage, social or economic. Unromanticised by 'fancy dress' the play seems harsher, but this also undermines what is perhaps intended to be a nod towards commedia style of some of the characters, making them seem too consciously being funny.

I found myself much more aware of Johnston's colloquial verse translation than when the RSC performed it a few years ago. This cast play it with intelligence but it is a little too consciously performed. Though well phrased for sense, there was little feeling that these were ideas that had passed through the character's heads - a result partly of the relentless pace - with the exception of Hamish McDougall's Tristan who allowed himself time to actually think an idea as well as speak it. Nevertheless it was good to hear text delivered with such clarity, in contrast to the mumbling so often come across today. In contrast the affectation of the ultra posh voice Beaumont gives Diana makes her that much more of a selfish nose-in-the air (literally), dropping almost every final consonant and only just comprehensible in her flurried hurry when angry.

I welcome the energy and eagerness of this new company. It is a pity their run was such a short one. Their regular meetings, playreadings and other work they have done together have developed a strong sense of ensemble and I hope it will go on to become much more than a self-created shop window.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton