I’ve been hoping for some time that Stratford would attend to a serious gap in their production history: the complete absence of works from the Spanish Golden Age. This year, the omission has been rectified. Had I my druthers, I would have opted for something by Calderon, but I was neither surprised nor disappointed that for their first outing, Stratford opted for what is probably the most famous Spanish play of the Golden Age, and a play of great cultural significance in Spanish history: Fuente Ovejuna, The Sheep’s Spring.
I usually don’t bother to summarize the classics, but this play, while enormously influential in Spain, is not that well-known in the rest of the world, so a plot summary is probably in order.
The Commander, Fernan Gomez de Guzman, of the order of Calatrava, lives in the rustic village of Fuente Ovejuna, and he has utter contempt for the place and its simple peasant inhabitants. He is a man who lives for honor on the one hand and to satisfy his sexual appetites on the other. The former leads him to urge his lord, the Master of Calatrava, a young and untried nobleman, to wage war on behalf of his kinsman, the King of Portugal, against the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, who (at the time of the play’s action) have not yet united all of Spain. The latter leads him to prey on the people of Fuente Ovejuna, seducing their wives and daughters when possible and taking them by force when it is not. The war does not go well, transient victories quickly giving way to rout. As for the people, for most of the play they chafe under his rule, but can see no way to rid themselves of the tyrant, until Guzman goes too far for their endurance, seizing the daughter of the mayor and her new husband on their wedding night, intending to ravish her and execute him for raising arms against him (Guzman) to defend her against his advances earlier in the play. Goaded by a fierce speech from that same daughter, Laurencia, who escaped without the loss of her honor but not without injury, the town as a whole rises up and slaughters Guzman and his men, and proclaim that they would have Ferdinand and Isabella rule them directly. When the news reaches the Catholic Kings that the people have killed their lord, they send an inquisitor to determine the facts of the case, and he duly applies the torture to just about everyone in the village. But the villagers have resolved not to finger anybody, but answer all questions with the phrase, “Fuente Ovejuna did it,” which would leave the monarchs no choice but to execute the entire village or pardon them all. Naturally, when they present their side of the story, they are all pardoned, and the play ends on a happy note of just authority restored.
Fuente Ovejuna is, basically, the play Clifford Odets wishes he had written. And it has served as an inspiration for the Spanish left for decades; “¡Fuenteovejuna lo hizo!” is a rallying cry in Spain comparable to “We Shall Overcome” or “Si, se puede” in America. It’s an incredibly stirring piece of work, both more powerful and more complicated than it seems from description, and more powerful because more complicated. The Catholic Kings are presented as the side of right, but they do not arrive at the end as a deus ex machina (as, for example, the King of France resolves the crisis at the end of Moliere’s Tartuffe). They have been part of the plot from the beginning, and from the beginning they are engaged in a plot – they are at war with the King of Portugal and his allies, and they need to be smart as well as just to win this war and secure their dominion. They do not pardon the town before putting it to the torture, and their pardon is followed by a promise to rule personally until it is possible to deliver to the town a commander “appropriate for such a people” – that’s from Lawrence Boswell’s modern translation, used in this production which he directed; the Spanish, and the ambiguity in the chosen English phrasing is extremely fruitful.
But while the depiction of power is fruitfully complicated, the depiction of the peasants of the village is sentimental. There are no actual conflicts between the villagers, no rivalries or snakes in the grass. The young peasant heroes, Frondoso and Laurencia, are as clean-cut and charming as Curley and Laurie, and their resistance to their inevitable union as contrived, but there is no Judd Fry in sight. Instead, there is Guzman, a different kind of outsider – not someone beneath them, but someone above them, and hence much easier for us to hate, to root for his destruction. What we have instead of complication is peasant comedy, and peasant comedy that is extremely likeable if that’s the sort of thing you like. And we have theatricality: peasant songs, a wedding dance, a rustic poetry slam.
On the page, the play seems a rather slight thing, but in performance, with a strong and vigorous cast, it comes to life. And this is a very strong cast. Jonathan Goad has the requisite swagger as Frondoso; Scott Wentworth is moustache-twirlingly evil as Guzman; even James Blendick’s ritualistic stolidity is appropriate for Esteban, the mayor of the village. And the rest of the ensemble is strong as well, from David Keeley and Stephen Russell as Guzman’s henchmen to Lindsey Thomas and Severn Thompson as women of the village to Geraint Wyn Davies and Seanna McKenna as the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella.
But the show is made by two performances specifically: Sara Topham as the furious Laurencia and Robert Persichini as the rustic buffoon, Mengo. Righteous fury is one of Topham’s strong suits; it’s what powered her Cassandra in a production of Agamemnon some years ago and made memorable her debut as Kate in Henry V. And Laurencia is righteous fury personified. And his Mengo may be the best performance I’ve seen yet from Persichini, precisely because he declines at any point to milk the role or mug for the audience – his performance has a studied innocence about it that is very hard to achieve.
And the production is mounted generally in that spirit of studied innocence. It’s the only way to mount it – tendentiousness or irony would kill it. You have to imagine it being staged by and for the peasants themselves, and that’s very much the way it felt. So kudos to director Lawrence Boswell – and kudos to him as well for his extremely fluid translation, which sounds simultaneously natural and formally theatrical, precisely what is wanted.
And kudos to the Festival, for mounting not only a play they’ve never done before, but bringing an entire classical tradition to their stages for the first time.