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 Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Watermill - The Gentleman from Olmedo

14th April to 22nd May 2004.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Pride and the passion of 17th-century Spain

The Gentleman from Olmedo, at The Watermill Theatre, until May 22

Lope de Vega has been called the Spanish Shakespeare, he and our English playwright being near contemporaries, but I doubt that Shakespeare could have written this play. The pride of family and position, obedience to parents and to the Catholic Church, are all Spanish.

A stranger comes to Medina from the rival city of Olmedo. He sees Inez and she sees him; they fall in love.

However, Inez's hand is sought by Don Rodrigo who has her father's favour.

There are two conniving servants who help the plot and the intrigue along. And a lovelorn sister, Leonor, and her suitor, Pedro. You get the drift of the plot?

At the interval, the various plans to avoid one suitor and marry a second seem on the way to a happy ending.

But after the interval, as nurses used to forecast, there were tears before nightfall.

The costumes are all either black, white or red. The scenery is solely a wooden platform strewn with red rose petals, backed by a wooden wall, in which there are flaps which open to convey windows and doors. But the spectator has no difficulty in seeing gardens, houses, the bull ring and a dark and lonely road.

The productions which The Watermill puts on are rarely less than excellent, and in this the sights, the sound effects and even the smell coming from the new oak used in the set are memorable.

Do book your seat; chuckle at the humorous one-liners in the first half, and have your blood chilled in the second.

I hope you will come away feeling that you have experienced something out of the ordinary as my family did.


From the Guardian.

Four stars
Lope de Vega makes Shakespeare look like a slacker. The Spanish Golden Age playwright, two years Shakespeare's senior, claimed to have written over 1,000 plays, and at least 400 survive. They are very much in vogue. No sooner has the RSC triumphed with the 1613 comedy Dog in the Manger than the Watermill gets in on the act with this play, dating from a dozen years later. It is very much a class act.

Reviewing Dog in a Manger last week, Michael Billington described it as: "The Duchess of Malfi played for laughs." The Gentleman from Olmedo is Romeo and Juliet with bullfighting. It also has more humour than Shakespeare's tragedy, and, in Jonathan Munby's production, the streaks of light and dark, laughter and desolation are played to perfection. Eerie songs of doom mingle with songs of celebration; poppy petal confetti adorns the stage, which later in the performance seems like globules of blood.

Like much of De Vega's work, the play turns on intrigue and honour as Ines, the daughter of a local nobleman, falls for Alonso from a neighbouring town. Unfortunately for love's young dream, Ines already has a local suitor, Rodrigo, and passions are soon running high, not just because of wounded hearts but because a visit from the king ups the political tension and competition between the nobles from the rivals' towns.

This is one of those plays where you know what is going to happen right from the opening moments, but Munby keeps the tension tight, and David Johnston's splendid translation ensures there is much enjoyment to be had along the way.

The stage is so tiny here, the experience of the drama so intimate that any fakery in the performances is easily spotted. This ensemble plays as straight and true as a lethal bullet.


From KickFM.

This stylish play, a mixture of comedy and tragedy, is by a Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Lope de Vega, and stylistically has lots of similarities to Shakespeare. But this is a modern translation, which makes it much more accessible. It bounces along at a great pace, on a completely bare stage, and it’s extremely watchable. If you like Shakespeare but find it a bit heavy going, try this one instead. The modern language means that you can get into it very easily, without having to think about the words too much.


From the Sunday Times.

Lope de Vega’s play, one of his best known, is classified as a tragicomedy — I can’t think why. True, there is comedy, provided by Tello, the hero’s loyal servant, a standard comic figure known as the gracioso, who aids and abets, but also satirises, the heroics of his master. Michael Matus is brisk and shrewd and funny in the part, and Nick Barber gives Alonso, his master, a sense of fine aristocratic elegance. Alonso is the tragic focus of the play, which is partly about marriage and the obstacles women can face in having the men they love. More importantly, the play is about the destructive rivalry between Spanish political factions. It is set in Medina, but Alonso comes from Olmedo, which makes him a suspect, possibly a dangerous outsider. Jonathan Munby’s production is tense, swift, lyrical and sardonic; the atmosphere is proudly and effortlessly Spanish, without any of the inept posturing that used to spoil so many English productions of Spanish plays. We’re getting there.


From the Daily Telegraph.

You wait years for a play from the Spanish Golden Age, then blow me down, along come five at once.

The chief provider of these Hispanic riches is of course the RSC, with its ensemble season of great Spanish plays at Stratford, which recently got off to a tremendous start with Lope de Vega's The Dog in the Manger.

But the ever-enterprising Watermill Theatre in Newbury has niftily boarded the bandwagon, too, and has formed its own ensemble company to perform Lope's The Gentleman from Olmedo (circa 1625), to be followed by The Venetian Twins, one of the most enjoyable comedies by the Italian dramatist Carlo Goldoni (1707-98).

As at the RSC, the Spanish specialist David Johnston is once again responsible for the vivid translation of the Lope play, in a style that ranges from high-blown lyric poetry to terrible "knock-knock" jokes. There is a rewarding dramatic richness about Lope de Vega, who constantly turns the mood on a sixpence between piercing tragedy and almost vaudevillian comedy.

In comparison with the RSC, the Watermill company, under the direction of Jonathan Munby, initially seems a touch stiff and strait-laced. After a thrilling opening sequence in which a funereal lament develops into a wild, flamenco-inspired dance routine, and the gentleman from Olmedo, Alonso, meets and falls instantly in love with the beautiful Ines at a swirling fair in Medina, the pace begins to plod a little.

But gradually the actors find their form on a splendidly simple wooden stage design by Mike Britton that appropriately puts one in mind of a bull ring where the lovers must fight for the precarious survival of their passion.

The problem is that Ines already has a suitor, Rodrigo, for whom she cares nothing, and his nose is put badly out of joint by the arrival of Alonso. When Alonso adds insult to injury by humiliatingly saving Rodrigo's life at a corrida before the King, the macho honour code that powers so many Spanish plays kicks in. Having suffered such a disastrous loss of face, Rodrigo must seek revenge.

At present, the play's comedy works better than its tragic romanticism. Nick Barber as Alonso and Marianne Oldham as a delightfully fresh and eye-catching Ines certainly look the part of the young lovers, but passion eludes them. There needs to be a far stronger sense of burning desire beneath the strict code of propriety that entraps them. Daniel Coonan, too, could usefully find more anguish as the tormented Rodrigo. His jealousy and rage too often seem like little more than an attack of acid indigestion.

But there are outstanding performances elsewhere. Maggie Shevlin is superb as the sinister go-between Fabia, an old crone who appears to be facilitating love's young dream but is actually a witch who gathers teeth from dead men on the gibbet and may deliberately be luring the hero and heroine to disaster.

There's lovely work, too, from Michael Matus as Alonso's hilariously disgruntled servant, and the scene in which he and Fabia disguise themselves as priest and nun in an attempt to persuade Ines's father that his daughter is about to enter a nunnery is riotously funny.

I was also greatly struck by Catherine Cusack as the heroine's sour, sharply disapproving sister who sees her own chance of love disappearing as Ines follows her dangerous dream. And the production is greatly helped by Katherine Taylor's vibrant choreography and Dominic Haslam's evocative score with Spanish guitar and liturgical music much to the fore.

The opening of the great treasure chest of neglected Spanish drama is already proving one of the highlights of the dramatic year.


There's a four-star review at WhatsOnStage ("stirring, atmospheric production").