Thursday 9 January 2014

Theatre review: Don Gil of the Green Breeches

The Arcola's main space starts the year by transferring from Bath a trio of plays performed in repertory, forming a Spanish Golden Age season. On the evidence of the first show, if this is what their Golden Age was like, I'd hate to see what happened when Spanish playwrights were having a bad hair century. Tirso de Molina's Don Gil of the Green Breeches is a comedy, it says here, of disguise and mistaken identity. Don Martin (Doug Rao) has promised marriage to Donna Juana (Hedydd Dylan) and already claimed his conjugal rights. But before he put a ring on it, his father demanded that should instead marry wealthy heiress Donna Ines (Katie Lightfoot.) Rather than not mention the existence of a girlfriend in the first place, it's decided that Martin should go to Ines in disguise and claim her hand as the fictional Don Gil, because ???

Finding herself deflowered with no husband to show for it, Juana decides to dress as a man in green breeches and present herself as Don Gil herself, stealing her fiancé's prospective bride, because ???

Tirso de Molina, whose initials are TDM or "tedium," was of course responsible for that incident in 2012 when audiences were damned by bad theatre, so I should probably have seen the signs. This is a different kind of damnation as the sort of Basil Exposition speech that plagues the opening of a couple of Shakespeare plays seems to form the sole narrative tool at the disposal of his Spanish counterpart. As well as the lengthy dump of backstory that Juana delivers at the opening, we're regularly treated to more long speeches catching us up on the latest plot entanglements, a convoluted path to a setpiece where half the cast turn up on stage wearing green breeches because ???

Somewhere along the line Juana also encourages Ines' cousin Donna Clara (Annie Hemingway) to believe she might have a chance with the cross-dressing Don Gil. I can't see any benefit of messing her around like this to Juana's plan to get Martin back, so for once it's not being done because ??? and I can only conclude she's doing it just because she's an awful, awful person. TDM was a 17th-century monk, I'm willing to bet his understanding of women's motivation was sketchy at best.

The cast mug, pout and flap to little comic effect, Sean O'Brien's translation's attempt to give the script a bit of a topical, up-to-date buzz consists of a reference to Benny Hill, and two-thirds of the audience remain stony-faced. The central seating bank seemed to find it all very amusing, so unless they were all related to the cast they must have been seeing something we couldn't from the sides. After all, I'd just been having a conversation with Ian before the show about Artistic Directors who seem unable to block for their own theatres; maybe Mehmet Ergen forgot that his main house has an unusual thrust with the vast majority of audience on the sides, and blocked the whole thing facing forwards. Perhaps the other two productions will redeem the season but for this opener I can only conclude that, having somehow made it to a stage in Bath, it then transferred to London because ???

Don Gil of the Green Breeches by Tirso de Molina in a version by Sean O'Brien is booking in repertory until the 15th of March at Arcola Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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