The sacred bond that is sisterhood is twisted, torn and stitched back together in Lope de Vega’s newly translated tale A Lady of Little Sense. Currently playing at the Arcola Theatre as part of its Spanish Golden Age Season, the typically unbridled passion of the Mediterranean is beautifully infused with comic British stoicism at the hands of Laurence Boswell, creating a rather volatile and pendulum-like struggle between obeying one’s head and following one’s heart. With a winning combination of slapstick, poetry and endless wordplay, not to mention an infinitely charming cast of ten, this baroque comedy lightly jests at the ultimately subjective notion of intelligence and celebrates the transformative power of love.
In Madrid, in a time governed by chivalry and chauvinism in equal measure, a wealthy gentleman name Octavio plans desperately to marry off his daughter Finea. While her sister, Nise, is beautiful, astute and sickeningly clever, Finea possesses all the wit and charm of a toadstool. Having advertised a hefty dowry for the man who marries her, Octavio lures in the young Liseo. Yet when Liseo meets his betrothed, he very quickly withdraws his proposal and instead fixes his sights on the socially revered Nise. Hounded already by three dashing suitors, Nise basks in the attention they lavish on her, making jokes at their expense. One of the suitors, named Laurencio, tires of her jovial rebuffs and instead pursues the affections of Finea. Thus ensues a crossfire of testosterone-fuelled proclamations of passion that in turn creates an enmity between the two sisters.
An impressive synthesis of two rather disparate cultures, A Lady of Little Sensedemonstrates a clever appreciation of romance and propriety from both a British and Spanish viewpoint. The heat of Lucy Cullingford’s strong choreography blooms unexpectedly through the moments of appropriately glacial direction drawing on the strengths of Frances McNamee and Katie Lightfoot as Finea and Nise respectively. McNamee, who somewhat fronts the ten-strong cast, wonderfully captures the feral frustration and tortured innocence of the academically challenged. Her erratic movements indicate a life of torment yet, as soon as the music starts, her movements become almost ethereal. Lightfoot’s hardened expression, combined with her clipped diction, lends itself wonderfully to Nise’s smug condescension while her soothing vocal tone smacks of self-satisfaction. Nick Barber’s Laurencio very cleverly vacillates between social aspiration and genuine affection while the multi-roling Chris Andrew Mellon adds a welcome classical tone to his hilarious performance.
A Lady of Little Sense expertly pays tribute to the intentions of Lope de Vega while subtly poking fun at its outdated ideals. Boswell’s direction of his female leads elevates them above de Vega’s rather unflattering text and makes them much more accessible to modern society. Moving seamlessly from demonstrations of reserved indifference to zealous Latin outbursts, complete with a riveting flamenco, this is a play that embodies and celebrates mixed culture. A rare instance of classical theatre as rousing now as when first written.
Reviewed by Alex Foott
Directed by Laurence Boswell
Translated by David Johnston
Performance date – Thursday 30th January 2014
A Lady of Little Sense plays at the Arcola Theatre until 15 March 2014. Click here for more information and to book tickets.