Of Villains and Villeins
The Young Vic’s presentation of Peribanez is a vibrant tribute to one of Spain’s greatest playwrights. Lope de Vega was born in 1562, just two years before Shakespeare, living until 1635. He was one of a number of outstanding writers and artists who formed Spain’s Golden Age.
Rufus Norris’s production is full of imagination. It opens with shadows dancing behind a white screen as a wedding party arrives. The story then unravels in twists and turns, stoking up suspense as it goes along.
The hero and heroine – Peribanez (Michael Nardone) and his new wife Casilda (Jackie Morrison) - are played with Scots accents, which makes them seem more down to earth. The higher class Commander of Ocana, played by David Harewood, speaks the Queen’s English by way of contrast, which emphasises his position as an “outsider” to the peasants’ way of life.
Harewood’s performance as the villain of the piece gives the play its real depth. His tortured obsession with Casilda is most convincing and is the driving force of events. The more she rejects his love, the more he wants her. Her lowly status increases his rage as he believes a peasant woman should make easy prey. Despite showering the newly-weds with mules and other presents, he is unable to acquire the object of his desire.
While the Commander suffers from unsatisfied love, his machinations contrast with the simple pleasures of the young peasants as they discover the delights of married life.
Lope’s story doesn’t just portray the conflicting desires for love and sex. The war against the Moors and social unrest are ever-present. The possibility of a peasant rebellion is raised by the Commander’s right-hand man.
At a guild meeting we discover a simple democracy at work with humour bordering on sacrilege. The village statue of its patron saint, San Roque, is in bad repair: “His dog’s peeling, half his bread’s missing and the angel’s split right the way up – there’s something not right about being blessed by a hand that’s missing two fingers.” When San Roque is wrapped in a blanket and strapped onto a “donkey” (actually an actor with bridle) so he can be taken off for repairs, the drama moves into the realm of the surreal.
This kind of theatre seems totally familiar and alien at the same time.
It is familiar because there is a Shakespearian feel to it. The story-telling, based on myth and fable, is pre-eminent. There are shades of the unfolding conspiracies we’ve seen in Othello and other tales. In the clash of individuals is also the struggle between social classes. Lope questions what it means to be noble – is it an accident of birth or is it in the way a person behaves?
But for all that, it’s not Shakespeare. The Bard gives us the common man and woman in occasional glimpses, but Lope, at least in this play, focuses on the peasant world, and makes the simplest people into his heroes.
His images are more direct and simple than Shakespeare’s. His descriptions are drawn directly from life. Our hero compares the queen of his heart to “a grove of olive trees, heaving with olives, curling down with fruit” and she him to “a young bull in a green field or a clean white shirt folded in a basket of jasmine flowers”.
In Lope we find a combination of pure lyricism with intrigue using formats derived from the allegories and mystery plays of the middle ages. The sly humour of characters such as the Priest (Michael O’Connor), Leonardo (Mark Lockyer) and the loquacious buffoon Lujan (Paul Hamilton) offset moments of unabashed sentimentality.
Rousing music by Orlando Gough and sound effects by Paul Arditti, plus dynamic choreography by Scarlett Mackmin all contribute to a fiery and passionate whole in which two hours pass in the twinkling of an eye.
Tanya Ronder’s translation is performed here for the first time. It shows that Lope de Vega’s message is both ancient and modern. It offers an insight into a distant and unfamiliar past and a lifestyle that has gone. But the message that honour and love can prevail against brute force and wealth is refreshingly relevant at this juncture in history.
Peribanez was at the Young Vic May/June 2003
Peribanez & Casilda's Wedding night
Commander of Ocana and Leonardo