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The Unquiet Grave of Garcia Lorca

Nicholas de Jongh
Simon Evans and Emma Butler
Drayton Arms Theatre

Damien Hasson as Federico Garcia Lorca Credit: Ed Clark
John Atterbury as Old Juan Ramirez de Lucas, Matthew Bentley as Young Juan and James Groom as theatre critic Alex Credit: Ed Clark
Damien Hasson as Federico Garcia Lorca and Matthew Bentley as Young Juan Ramirez de Lucas Credit: Ed Clark

In 2010, a 91-year-old Juan Ramirez de Lucas, retired Spanish art critic, gave his sister a box of mementos and documents that he asked her to make public after his death.

A year later, the Spanish newspaper El Pais revealed that the documents showed that de Lucas had been the last lover of Federico Garcia Lorca. They provided new information about the last days of the famous poet and dramatist before he was shot by a firing squad on a hillside in Granada.

Full publication was expected but has not happened, but what became publicly available through El Pais and other reporting is at the centre of this intriguing new play.

De Jongh presents not only the Civil War story of Lorca and de Lucas but a political critique of Great Britain’s conduct concerning that conflict. The play moves backwards and forwards between scenes then and ones set in our own time that explore intimate relationships, privacy and changed attitudes to sexual orientation.

It begins with a scene in which a retired English banker is digging in the garden of his newly-purchased Spanish villa when he unearths a skeleton with a shot-shattered pelvis which he thinks is that of Garcia Lorca. It is a rather clunky scene that really isn’t necessary but, as the strangulated vowels of his caricatured, sangria-swigging wife scream that they must sell the villa immediately, it is a reminder that Lorca’s grave had never been found and a metaphor for the rest of the play, which is, of course, digging up history.

Loren Elstein’s set reflects that too. The shell of the room open to its window sills and fireplace, actors not in a scene staying on in the shadows and a sea of sand spread across the rear part with furniture rising from it. The Sands of Time?

Subtlety is not the great feature of de Jongh’s play writing either. He is absolutely explicit in his picture of British support for the Fascists in Spain and our share of responsibility for what happened in what Hitler used as a try out for what came later.

This imagined behind-the-scenes picture of upper crust Baldwin, Eden and ex-M16 publisher Jerrod is satirical cliché with the only dissension from civil servant Vansittart opposing appeasement, but there were many in Britain who supported Republican Spain. De Jongh represents them in a young man called Harry who went out to drive an ambulance and there met de Lucas.

The play presents only the elderly Harry, an actor recently retired, who is beautifully played by Peter Dineen. He sends a young gay theatre critic Alex out to visit the aging Juan. Juan’s memories take things back to his romance with Lorca and those fatal last days of his lover, scenes which (for we all know what happened) are overladen with doom.

Damien Hasson’s Lorca looks very like pictures of the young poet (though in real life at this time he was rather more fleshy) and gives him an engaging enthusiasm and romantic blindness, caught up in his attraction to Matthew Bentley’s young Juan, who is played with the same sensitivity that John Atterbury gives to him as an old man.

James Groom is beautifully open and honest as Alex, the young critic. His conversations with a much older generation emphasise the changes in the gay situation in society and gently uncover the hints of past romance never talked about. De Jongh is particularly good at capturing the careful reticence of that pre-war generation of gay men, relaxed among their immediate coterie but totally schtum to outsiders in a world where exposure could be disastrous and discretion essential.

Director Hamish MacDougall’s metatheatrical staging does not quite overcome the script's occasional contrivance and the insertion of an awkward apparition from Spain’s rebellious past, presumably to mirror Lorca’s use of poetic symbolism.

Nonetheless, interest in Lorca and any new discoveries about him, coupled with the sincerity of some of the playing, holds the attention. There is perhaps too much packed into this play: political history, several half-told love stories, an intriguing grandfather/grandson relationship, and a reflection on closet gay life and they could all be developed much more fully. They lose out somewhat by having no time to develop.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton