Don Gil of the Green Breeches at the Arcola Theatre
Dalston’s Arcola Theatre has begun 2014 with a Spanish Golden Age season, opening with Tirso de Molina’s Don Gil of the Green Breeches in a new translation by Sean O’Brien. The season has moved from The Ustinov Studio in Bath, a theatre renowned for reintroducing (often foreign) lost classics to a British audience.
Donna Juana (Hedydd Dylan) is met at the start of the play on the outskirts of Madrid in male attire, it turns out that her lover and betrothed Don Martin (Doug Rao) has spurned her, leaving Valladolid to woo the wealthy Donna Ines (Katie Lightfoot) in the capital. It later transpires that Juana has followed him, adopted the male pseudonym Martin is using and dressing in magnificent green attire. Juana is constantly one step ahead of Martin and using the moniker “Don Gil”, causes great frustration for her former lover as she captures the heart of Ines.
The play, performed in traditional costume, has the semblance of bawdy farce but unlike Twelfth Night (the obvious comparison piece) the heroine’s hand is forced. Martin has taken Juana’s virginity and therefore she must follow him, she must disrupt his pursuit of the Madrilenian belle and eventually win him back in order to retain her honour. Whilst being careful not to resurrect outmoded national stereotypes, it should be said that there is a dimension and sort of strength to Juana unseen in heroines from English plays of the same time. Beatrice, Viola and Katherina are all wonderful Shakespearean characters but Juana’s Latin sexuality, so well purveyed by Dylan, is refreshingly modern.
Don Gil of the Green Breeches was written at a time when the Spanish Inquisition was a prominent force in Castile and the play again distinguishes itself from English works by alluding to many facets of life within Spain in the seventeenth century. The dialogue is peppered with references to the church and the inquisition and Jim Bywater’s hapless Caramanchel, provides a “serf’s eye view” of the country and its stringent social strata.
Despite the obvious scholarship of Sean O’Brian, the translation does seem to be a little rough. Helen Edmundson’s version of Life Is a Dream that played at the Donmar some years back was a perfect example of how to translate a Spanish Golden Age play and adapt it for a contemporary British stage – this falls well short of that standard. Despite the slack translation, this is a very well-acted, enjoyable piece that should enthrall lovers of classical theatre.
Guy de Vito
Don Gil of the Green Breeches is on at Arcola Theatre until 15th March 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a video about the Ustinov Studio’s Spanish Golden Age season here: