By Lope de Vega In a new English version
by Laurence Boswell
Directed by Laurence Boswell
Starring Scott Wentworth, Jonathan Goad and Sara Topham
For the second time this season, the Stratford Festival has opened a play about war in the Tom Patterson Theatre in which the central character isn't a Shakespearean king, but a group of ordinary citizens. Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna is an intriguing and very entertaining contrast to Euripides' The Trojan Women. It's the first time the festival has mounted a Spanish Golden Age classic, and though it is a quirky, uneven production, it is hoped it will be the first of many.
Based on real events in the 15th century, the play's collective protagonist is Fuente Ovejuna, a town claimed by both Portugal and Spain whose people rose up and killed their cruel overlord Fernan Gomez de Guzman (played by a cackling Scott Wentworth).
As dramatized by Lope 40 years after the rebellion and newly translated by British director Laurence Boswell, Fuente Ovejuna seems like an atypical and idealized country town. The local preacher, we are told, quotes Plato in his sermons and plays the bassoon. The villagers, meanwhile, complain about "information overload" - caused not by the Internet, but the arrival of the printing press.
Sara Topham and Jonathan Goad have great chemistry playing two of town's perhaps too-good-natured souls, Laurencia and Frondosa, whose love story incites the action of the play. Laurencia refuses the commander's seductions leading him to attempt to rape her; she is saved by Frondosa, who threatens the tyrant with his own crossbow.
Guzman vows revenge and interrupts their wedding, sentencing Frondosa to death, taking Laurencia off to be raped and beating her father, the mayor (James Blendick), on the back with his ceremonial staff.
Lope's unusual mix of comedy and brutality can feel almost heretical to a modern, liberal audience unused to casual violence. For instance, when the fool-like Mengo (Robert Persichini) is whipped, his beaten state is used as fodder for humour as he repeatedly describes his mangled buttocks as raw salmon steaks.
The tone becomes even more unsettling in the second half once Fuente Ovejuna's townspeople descend on the commander and his associates and joyously rip them to pieces with pitchforks and shovels. Are we to celebrate the acts of a bloodthirsty mob?
The play's comic moments work surprising well in a production that often has the loose feel of a collective creation, but the horrific moments don't have much impact. Part of the reason is that Boswell has struggled to figure out how to stage crowd scenes on the long, skinny catwalk that is the Tom Patterson thrust stage. When Topham's Laurencia arrives, bloody and broken by Guzman's henchmen, to deliver a stirring monologue spurring on the men of the town to revenge, she is oddly not approached or touched by anyone including her father.
Sometimes Boswell's direction is not just awkward but inadvertently comic. A fight in slow-motion ends up looking silly, while the decision to have crucial offstage dialogue boom like the voice of God through the sound system turns the off-stage torture of a 10-year-old into a giggle-inducing moment.
This torture comes when the town's new Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella (Geraint Wyn Davies and Seana McKenna, in what are essentially cameos) send a judge to the town to investigate who is to blame for the insurrection; he puts everyone on the rack, literally, but the townspeople have been expecting this Spanish Inquisition and respond to every question with "Fuente Ovejuna did it."
The political implications are ambiguous. Lope's portrait of an oppressed collectivity taking up arms is certainly meant to be inspiring, but Fuente Ovejuna's people aren't motivated by a desire for democracy, only for a more benevolent dictatorship. This isn't what we hope to happen to a society after a cruel overlord is overthrown. Yet our own modern hopes are equally naive. Think of the stirring television image of Saddam Hussein's statue toppling in Iraq, followed by the complicated aftermath.
A window into a foreign time and culture neglected by most English-language classical theatres, Fuente Ovejuna's programming at Stratford is refreshing and, judging by the enthusiastic reception by the audience, quite welcome.
Fuente Ovejuna runs until Oct. 4 at the Stratford Festival