Wednesday, May 23, 1990

Guardian: "Honour bound"

Honour bound
Michael Billington.
8 July 1995
The Guardian
(c) 1995

The re-discovery of Spanish Golden Age drama has been one of the great bonuses of my theatre-going lifetime. And it seems right that the RSC should have invited Laurence Boswell, who uncovered Spanish treasure at the Gate, to direct the British premiere of Pedro Calderon de la Barca's The Painter of Dishonour (1645) at Stratford's Other Place. A strong story, big emotions, an operatic intensity: this is the real, right stuff.

Calderon's cloak-and-sword drama, which shuttles between Naples and Barcelona, amounts to a damning critique of the honour code. Don Juan Roca, an ageing painter, has married the young, beautiful Serafina: a woman once secretly engaged to Alvaro whom she believes drowned at sea. Needless to say, Alvaro turns up, badgers and pursues the hapless Serafina and abducts her from the painter's blazing Barcelona house. By what W S Gilbert would call a set of curious chances, the dishonoured dauber is eventually commissioned to paint his beleaguered wife, which leads to a predictably violent climax.

Calderon's play is sustained by a spirit of sceptical enquiry. "What madness created laws like these?" asks Don Juan in this version by Boswell and David Johnston; and he goes on to expose the fatal weakness of the honour code, which is that it works against the innocent victim rather than the sinner.

But the play is also a fascinating meditation on art and nature, in which Don Juan finds it easier to project his jealous rage on to canvas than his admiration for Serafina's flawless features.

Boswell's production is both intellectually rigorous and voluptuously theatrical. The sombre Velazquez interiors of Rob Howell's panelled design are offset by a white-robed Barcelona carnival and the ubiquitous flame-red figure of Death. John Carlisle also brings a craggy grandeur to the role of the dishonoured painter, and there is bracing support from Jennifer Ehle as his divided bride, Clifford Rose as a silvery ambassador and Tony Rohr as the hero's tale-spinning servant. A marvellous revival that makes me hope we shall continue to dig for Spanish gold.

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