Fuente Ovejuna

Lope de Vega, in a version by Daniel Goldman
Tangram Theatre Company
Southwark Playhouse

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This one has to be seen to be believed. It should be compulsory viewing for anybody who thinks that Spanish Golden Age plays are dull and crusty, or, for that matter, has not even heard of the genre.

As aficionados love to point out, Lope de Vega wrote around 1,800 plays and Daniel Goldman's radical re-working of this classic willingly supplements the original by borrowing text from sources as diverse as Shakespeare and Irish folk songs.

Having said all of that, there is an awful lot crammed into these two and a quarter hours that Lope did not write. Throughout, though, the spirit is clearly present and Goldman pulls off a real coup when the production effortlessly changes gear from comic romp to near-tragedy soon after the interval.

The opening is solidly post-modern with Brechtian overtones as the actors introduce themselves, their characters and give us a brief idea of what might happen when they travel back to the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella (a good comic double act) in 1476.

The nation is at war with Portugal and things are not going too swimmingly. In the town of Fuente Ovejuna (The Sheep's Well) their own equivalent is going on, as the people are powerless to withstand the excesses of the war hero, Fernan Gomez de Guzman, expertly represented as the embodiment of evil by Richard Cunningham.

He expects the pleasure of droit de seigneur from every woman in town and most succumb to the bully, albeit with ill grace.

However, some believe that honour overrides fealty to the religious order represented by de Guzman. They are led by Hannah Boyle's Laurencia, giving a fine, feeling performance as the Mayor's daughter. She plays hard to get twice over, rejecting not only de Guzman but also a man who really loves her, Frondoso, played by James Rowland.

Up to the point when Frondoso triumphantly wins the hand of Laurencia and we participate in the wedding celebrations, the play had been a barrel of laughs, helped along by live gypsy music (for this performance, as the band changes every night). In addition, the cast perform new arrangements of appropriate pop songs to enhance the mood, with love ballads to the fore.

The wedding is cut short by the arrival of the baddie and his cohorts, who carry off the bride in order to have their wicked way with her and the brave groom to torture and slaughter him.

The whole town then attends a secret meeting in the theatre's bar and vows allegiance to the Mayor and his daughter in their search for vengeance. We then march on the palace of de Guzman and help to execute him, with the aid of water-filled balloons (yes, really).

All that is left for us in this supremely interactive event is to withstand an inquisition and an ensuing audience with the King and Queen before the night ends on a high, with the town's catchy theme tune (which sounds strangely like The Fratellis' Chelsea Dagger).

The whole is marvellously entertaining, once you get over the modern dress and language in this happily anachronistic brand new version of the script, developed by Goldman and the company.

With all due respect to Southwark Playhouse, Fuente Ovejuna deserves to be seen more widely and it is fervently to be hoped that either they invite Tangram Theatre back in the very near future or a larger venue (with promenade spaces) snaps up the production for future performance.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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