Both as artistic director of London’s Gate Theatre in the mid-1990s and thereafter with the Royal Shakespeare Company and elsewhere, Laurence Boswell has been British theatre’s foremost contemporary evangelist for the dramas of the early-17th-century Spanish Golden Age. Last autumn, on his current home turf at the Ustinov Studio in Bath, Boswell curated a season consisting of newly retranslated revisitations to a couple of plays from his Gate era, Tirso de Molina’s Don Gil of the Green Breeches and Punishment Without Revenge by Lope de Vega, together with another Lope, A Lady of Little Sense (La Dama Boba, 1613). This package has now transferred in repertoire to the Arcola in London (whose supremo Mehmet Ergen has directed Don Gil).
The basic set-up is a cousin to that of The Taming of the Shrew: two sisters of marriageable age – but in this case neither is a straightforward proposition. Nise is an arrogant bluestocking, while not even a dowry of 40,000 ducats can hide the fact that Finea is, as my mother used to say, as thick as champ. Liseo, who has arrived in Madrid to court Finea, is daunted by her spectacular stupidity and falls instead for Nise; meanwhile Laurencio, one of a clutch of suitors whom Nise disdains, decides to take the money along with Finea’s hand. Under his courtship she blossoms in both simple intellect and feeling, which drives Laurencio to jealousy and provokes Liseo to revert to Plan A.
It’s an exuberant comedy, and David Johnston’s translation catches its energy. Katie Lightfoot as the petulant Nise and Frances McNamee as duckling-into-swan Finea provide strong twin foci, culminating in a song-and-dance sequence that is superficially courtly but plainly amounts to a sisterly duel. Simon Scardifield draws on his seemingly inexhaustible supply of boyish charm as Liseo, and Jim Bywater turns in a fine set of cameos including playing a tutor and a dancing master each driven to distraction by the early idiocies of Finea.
Ultimately, though, Lope de Vega’s play runs into a similar problem to Shakespeare’s: he genuinely does believe that Nise is literally too clever for her own good. And moreover, despite much talk of punishing Laurencio for his two-timing, neither he nor Liseo suffer for changing their affections with the prevailing winds. With these disquieting undercurrents, you can never quite give yourself up to the fun.