Pedro, the Great Pretender

Miguel de Cervantes, in a new translation by Philip Osment
Royal Shakespeare Company Newcastle season
People's Theatre, Newcastle

Cervantes' Pedro, the Great Pretender has never had a professional production until this one, and you can see why. It breaks every rule in the book: it's episodic (there are thirteen episodes, to be precise); its plot is, to say the least, loosely structured; it doesn't really fit into de Vega's 'tragicomedy' genre of the seventeenth century in Spain; the hero is not a "man of honour" but, as translator Osment describes him, a "rascal drawn from folklore and picaresque literature" - in short, it is too innovative.

It certainly disconcerted the 21st century audience at Newcastle's People's Theatre on its opening night as the actors wandered in, some through the audience, gathered together on chairs at the back of the stage around the musicians, and then John Ramm addressed us directly, telling us we were about to see thirteen scenes from the life of Pedro. Is this classical theatre? even Spanish classical theatre? Has the RSC gone all modern in its staging of a classical piece?

Then, when a scene finishes, the actors simply walk to the back and are replaced by the actors for the next scene. There is a snap lighting change and we are presented with a very painterly still picture (nice one, LX designer Ben Ormerod!), the lighting snaps back to "proper" stage lighting and the scene starts.

It works. The play proceeds from scene to scene at a good pace and what seem at first to be disconnected scenes gradually reveal themselves to be a well-rounded picture of the central character, Pedro himself, played with great glee and a marvellous rapport with the audience by John Ramm.

It's great fun, too, and gives all the actors a chance to shine. It would be invidious to single out any single individual for this is a great ensemble piece, but invariably there are highlights, apart from Ramm: Rebecca Johnson (Diana in The Dog in the Manger) gave us a very Miranda Richardson Queenie-like Queen whilst Joseph Millson as the King was a real delight. Julius D'Silva's Mayor is a marvellous comic creation and Oliver Williams, as the Scribe and the Master of the Revels, was wonderfully disdainful.

Director Mike Alfreds contrived some lovely little moments: the two glove-puppet hens brought on by Joseph Chance as the Farmer (a really nice cameo) and Simon Trinder, as the gentleman attendant on the Queen trying to continue fanning her no matter what was happening - or what she was doing!

It was a very enjoyable production, with the all concerned making their contribution, but the night really belonged to Cervantes. Just short of 390 years after it was written, Pedro, the Great Pretender confirmed what we already know from Don Quixote, that he is among the greats of the comic writer pantheon.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at London's Albery Theatre

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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