There’s nothing coy about Fernando de Rojas’ tragicomedy (1499), presented here in a Spanish Golden Century double bill along with Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan. “Shut your trap and open your wallet,” a valet advises his master as they visit Célestine, a hard-nosed procuress in hot demand as a “virginity restorer”.
Christian Schiaretti, director of Villeurbanne’s Popular National Theatre, has form when it comes to ambitious stagings of classic texts and his choice of translator (Florence Delay) is spot on: the language is vivid and accessible with no clunky false notes. The set is just as undusty: a bifrontal wooden corridor, not a prop in sight, framed by massive swing doors and stylishly lit by Julia Grand. But in spite of classy costumes, engaging performances and heaving bosoms, nothing stops this production running out of steam over 3½ hours.
The plot is simple enough in this hybrid novel-play that straddles philosophical debate and bawdy action. Boy (Calixte) gets aristocratic girl (Mélibée) only with the help of the go-between who is later killed by the servants she cheated. The young sweethearts die in quick succession. Yet there’s none of the star-crossed-lovers convulsion of Romeo and Juliet. This passion feels more like dalliance than destiny.
Schiaretti brings the cruel comedy alive with freshness and vigour, using the space inventively and happily mixing pelvic thrusts and patrician disapproval. However, his touch is less assured when it comes to the dénouement. Célestine gets bumped off early in the second act, but the mechanism of the tragedy has a long, long way to run – literally, as the actors continue to charge up and down the boards with very little to vary the action. There’s a whiff of desperation as they accelerate their delivery to reach the leaden end.
The production’s force field is concentrated on Hélène Vincent, a ballsy Mother Courage who balances Chaucerian earthiness with a sneaky heart of gold. She orchestrates the action with gleeful pragmatism and some dark arts, seducing the audience as she orchestrates sex for third parties. The rest of this appealing cast are iron filings to her magnet.
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