BWW Reviews: DON GIL OF THE GREEN BREECHES, Arcola Theatre, January 16 2014
The Arcola's ambitious Spanish Golden Age season gets started with a cracking comedy: Don Gil of the Green Breeches by Tirso de Molina (1579-1648). Cross-dressing and mistaken identity are the main ingredients here, and poke fun at the courtly tradition of paramours and fate-crossed lovers.
This new, witty translation, by Sean O'Brien, is fresh and accessible. The language is often Shakespearean, with the occasional rhyming couple propelling the action, but there is also much that is amusingly self-referential. The opening scene, in which we are bombarded by plot - a confusing backstory filled with names and events - is later sent up in a scene between the hysterical Donna Ines and her father in which she speedily garbles the whole convoluted plot at him without drawing breath: "Now, you must remember everything I've said," she rounds off. We sympathise with him.
Lots of standard tropes of the day are turned on their head, including the theme of revenge. As Donna Juana (an impressively versatile Hedydd Dylan) exacts her revenge on the man she loves who, when the story opens, has reneged on his pledge to marry her, and is posing as his cousin to pursuing another woman, with a heftier dowry. She intends to scupper his plans by posing as her ex-lover's cousin herself - one Don Gil. As both Don Gil pretenders hasten to woo the spoiled child Donna Ines, she falls madly in love with the wrong Don Gil, i.e. with Donna Juana (who does indeed look fetchingly boyish in her green breeches).
With his plans of a quick marriage being frustrated at every step of the way, Don Gil wonders what could possibly be behind this, and settles on the ghost of the wronged Juana (who he has been led to believe is now dead) as the cause. He's not far off the mark but, as we know, the truth is far more prosaic. It is typical of the play's irreverence not to miss the chance to make fun of the idea of the restless, revenging ghost.
Katie Lightfoot is an excellent Donna Ines - silly, besotted and unable to see through the obvious trickery. She plays her like a stroppy queen, brattish and deluded about her own charms. The chaotic plot is centred around strong, recognisable characters: there's the graceless chevalier ("Don Juan"), the bawdy bumpkin, and the frumpy cousin who want a bit of the action. Mehmet Ergen's direction brings these to life well, with a good mix of caricature and warmth.
A real highlight is Jim Bywater as Caramanchel, the manservant employed by Donna Juana while she is undercover. His confusion about his "hermaphrodite" master, whom he never suspects to actually be a woman, is comic. He is disgusted to walk in on "him" dressed in women's clothing, and his crude lines are a pleasure: when the truth about his master's gender comes out in the final scenes, he wonders at having "a dish you thought was meat turn out to be fish".
There are times during Don Gil of the Green Breeches when just as you feel you've grasped the plot, it slips through your fingers again. It is a testimony to good direction and acting that the audience's attention is sustained at times like these; the scenes carry themselves, even if some big moments of exposition leave you none the wiser. But then, all that goes with the territory of farce.