An emotion-rich tale of relentless oppression by masters on their subjects has brought the passion and politics of Spain to Stratford with a captivating bang.
Small town Fuente Ovejuna is home to Commander Fernán Gomez de Guzmán (Scott Wentworth) when he and his equally savage knights are not out-of-town killing, raping and looting for the greater good.
Between battles, the ruthless warrior keeps in top form by killing, raping and looting (masquerading as “gifts” from his blindly loyal serfs) the local population.
Of all his sexual conquests (deflowering nubile, just-married women a specialty), the unwanted ravaging of Laurencia (Sara Topham) eludes his trophy case. The strong-willed daughter-of-the-mayor (Lee MacDougall serves up a finely paced and beautifully intoned model of the “politician as eunuch”) is being wooed with vigour by Frondoso (Jonathan Goad—miles away from his thoroughly convincing role as Harold Hill in The Music Man—delivers another grand example of his versatility).
One fine day in the forest, the pent-up commander snares his hold-out prey while hunting another sort of “dear.” Hiding in the underbrush—rightfully fearing for his life—Frondoso snaps just as the lascivious ruler is about to impale the hapless virgin with his ever-ready spear of flesh. Recklessly, the so-in-love young man comes to the rescue—facing down the enraged/engorged lecher with his own, cocked, crossbow (Freud could dine out on this case for months).
For the moment, the frenzy of passion and youth saves the day of the hopeful lovers. But don’t fuck with the Commander!
Another hot-blooded innocent comes in the personage of Guzmán’s superior, Grand Master Rodrigo Téllez Girón (Stephen Kent). This nineteen-year-old (brought to high office by a combination of legal succession planning and untimely death) is malleable putty in the nefarious hands of his wily, elder, subordinate. Using the twin temptations of pride and ambition, the Knights of Calatrava (aided and abetted by their loyal followers who can either go along to war or stay at home to die) are ordered to cast their lot with the wrong side in the long-range goal of controlling the entire Iberian Peninsula. They embark to liberate a strategic town with a naïve vow from the Master: “I shall … strike the walls of Ciudad Real like a bolt of lightning, and make the blood fly from my white sword until it’s a true image of the flaming cross.”
That round goes to the Master and his mates but when their powerful rivals—King Ferdinand of Aragon (Geraint Wyn Davies) and Queen Isabella of Castile (Seana McKenna) get the news, they respond with a devastating counterattack that shows Girón just how inexperienced he is—too bad about the hundreds of deaths required to teach the young leader such an important lesson.
Ah, youth! As shown by prolific playwright Lope de Vega, their unbridled enthusiasm for sudden action heroically saves lives and unwittingly ends them. The allure of blossoming, immature girls (and not a few boys) drives older men to humiliating, self-serving acts of depravity where the prize—once captured and consummated—still fails to satisfy: on to the next.
In all of this misery, why was so much laughter heard? The near-perfect mix of director Laurence Boswell’s vision (he also penned a new version of the script) and an acting ensemble that plays well together give this production a balance of grim and grin that keeps everyone engaged as the tragedies unfold and the yuks mount up—much like watching the news with its carefully placed “human interest” (there’s no human interest in the latest suicide bombing?) stories and commercial breaks.
However, not everything works. Blood-thirsty Guzmán is asked to flavour his brutal characterization with a few measures of queer (replete with a girly fan) that tickles the funny bone of Monty Python devotees but weakens his manly lust for the fairer sex. As Mengo, the large-of-girth common farmer, Robert Persichini has moments of brilliance (his evolution as a poet fires on all stanzas), but the frequent mugging and near mooning of his flailed-raw buttocks (bullying the easy targets a universal activity then and now) slips into the realm of cheap laugh and may forever banish fresh salmon steaks from the menu of the queasy.
Throughout the pillage, breaking point (the good burghers collectively murder their lord, decrying “Fuente Ovejuna did it” to their astonished inquisitors) and resolution (all is forgiven, but aren’t those Moors getting a little too big for their breeches?), Edward Henderson’s score (most ably performed on stage and off) adds a special dimension that lifts the wedding party to the rafters and provides subtle soundposts to the dramatic action.
Those wise enough to visit this everyman-in-chains village will come away with a better understanding of the horrors that continue to abound in the name of “right” in our modern, civilized world. JWR