It takes a confident director to let a 1930 Lorca play open with a scene that could almost be from Alan Bennett, then progress through haunting folksong harmonies and erotic energy to a savage end, and set it in a Spain returned to primitive rural ways by the collapse of the eurozone. Not to mention casting a character the author describes as “Little Girl” as a balding middle-aged man (Robert Benfield) in a cotton frock and ankle socks, as if Grayson Perry had decided not to bother with the wig.
But it works. Brilliantly, in this adaptation by Tommy Murphy. It is a story of a country bride who flees her wedding to a decent young man, because she and an old lover cannot forget one another even though he is married to her cousin. The rivals, after an eerie chase through woodland, kill one another; Lorca took the tale from a newspaper report. In Laurie Sansom’s Festival of Chaos for Royal & Derngate, it fields the same cast as his terrifying The Bacchae (reviewed on Monday), and deliberately creates echoes, in its casting, of that same erotic instability that threatens order, that wildness within us. Ery Nzaramba, sullen and preoccupied, is no longer Dionysius but now the runaway lover; Seline Hizli again his helpless lover, Liam Bergin no longer the victim-king Pentheus but the victim-groom. More striking still, Kathryn Pogson, a remarkable and too-little-seen actor who played the deluded and murderous mother in The Bacchae, is now the groom’s mother, displaying a rare ability to blend comedy with deep-felt rage.
In the opening scene she berates her son for wanting to marry a girl whose family members killed his father, but it is touching, funny, Bennett-ish. She makes tart remarks then melts into fondness, admitting to a yen for grandchildren: “I want nothing more than to have too much embroidering to do.” The tale continues, ever more unsettling (the cross-dressed Little Girl has much to do with this:
Benfield was Tiresias in the other play) and Pogson becomes a benign matriarch at the heart of a musically eerie wedding party, and finally an avenging fury.
The set intensifies the sense of lurking primitive: the walls of the houses are black mesh, so that as the lighting changes you see the deep haunted forest behind. Sansom’s Festival (that continues with Hedda Gabler) is part of the Cultural Olympiad, but with all eyes on the capital it is good to be reminded that some of the most daring, fascinating theatre springs up well outside it.