Theatre - Sheridan Morley on Spain's answer to the Bard, and why Shakespeare's a hit with teenagers
If the Spanish Armada had succeeded, we might have had Lope de Vega instead of Shakespeare. Instead, although the dates are a little dodgy, on the evidence of Peribanez, a long-lost Lope de Vega drama from the Golden Age now in a rare revival at the Young Vic, it seems fair to surmise that he must have been familiar with the Bard's best. For here are the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, the struggle between honour and sex in Measure for Measure, the Othello-Iago relationship and the tricky return home of the garrison from Much Ado About Nothing.
And if we further consider that Lope de Vega amazingly wrote more than 500 plays (he was rewarded by a state funeral in 1635 which lasted nine whole days) who are we to grudge him a little literary piracy?
The problem with him as a playwright, and I write with all the confidence of having seen barely half a dozen of his plays, is that his dramas seem to lose the will to live somewhere around the interval. Rufus Norris as director, and especially Ian MacNeil as the designer, do all they can to disguise this by much activity on a multi-level set. There are equally valiant performances from Michael Nardone in the title role and from Jackie Morrison as Casilda, whose beauty sets off a revenge drama that might quite literally have been called Blood Wedding.
True, it is a little hard even for this team to conjure up steamy Spanish passions amid the chill of Waterloo at the start of yet another frigid British summer, let alone an entire Spanish village in full fiesta mood.
For all that, we should salute the new management at the Young Vic, now under David Lan, one much less publicised than other changes of management this summer, for giving us a glimpse of what we have always chosen to ignore. Yet again, an archival treasure has been uncovered by a company working on a fraction of the budget of the RSC or the National, where these discoveries ought to be made: the RSC, as usual limping along too late, has announced a fully fledged Spanish Golden Age season for next year.
I have never been worried by updates or musicals of Shakespearean originals: why else would God have given us West Side Story or Kiss Me Kate? True, there was Fire Angel, an Othello musical that lives in my nightmares even after a quarter-century, but anyone who has ever been unfortunate enough to be subjected to any production of a Shakespeare play for schools, who has sat in an audience of bored, fidgeting, sweet-chomping, restless teenagers who have come only because Macbeth or Much Ado is their GCSE set text and their teachers are too ignorant or too bone idle to prepare them properly for the unaccustomed live theatre experience, will bless the day these four talented but otherwise unremarkable young men were born. And they will welcome The Bomb-itty of Errors (idiotic title, still don't know what it means). This, parents, is what you do with your teenagers this spring. Seats at the New Ambassadors would be cheap at twice the price, even allowing for the collateral ice creams and drinks, if you can justify whatever you spend by boasting to your friends that your kids have begged to see Shakespeare. Because Shakespeare it undoubtedly is, linguistically challenged but clearly recognisable.
Four young actors in New York, while still drama students, developed A Comedy of Errors into a hip-hop extravaganza, tried it out tentatively for their friends and it has become a worldwide hit - justifiably, in my view. The London cast is a different set of young American actors but they, too, are well trained and entirely committed to The Bomb-itty of Errors. Despite, or perhaps because, they look nothing like one another, the two sets of male twins seem even funnier. They are particularly good as the women. And the music (all right, that curious banging sound that accompanies the words), is organised by an on-stage performing DJ.
Who cares if the choreography has a range of about 20 repetitive movements, all invented by Michael Jackson? The kids are familiar with those robotic jerks, as they demonstrate in the aisles during the interval. And so what if the language has been reduced to about 250 words of New York street talk, often sexual, occasionally lavatorial, and always basic?
Shakespeare himself was not above any of these audience-grabbing techniques and his own language was as accessible to his audience as this is to the teenagers.
Based on the reaction of the audience, which cheered, laughed, applauded and shrieked for more, the production should keep the New Ambassadors well supplied with pocket money for some time to come. And this, I remind you, is for Shakespeare. What can be bad about that?
Peribanez is at the Young Vic, London SE1 (020 7928 6363) until 7 June
The Bomb-itty of Errors is at the New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2 (020 7369 1761) until 12 July