James Fenton on Spanish drama of the Golden Age

Spanish classics would suit any one of our small theatres, writes James Fenton

The best of the spaces at the National Theatre was always said to be the Cottesloe. The best of the Royal Shakespeare Company venues is the Swan. In a way they are the same theatre, although one is executed in modern materials, while the other is a very attractive piece of carpentry. They offer the same idiomatic space that resembles - although it does not mimic it in any period detail - the courtyard of an inn.

Neither theatre has any relevant exterior to speak of: they are two interiors inserted as an afterthought in buildings that had something else on their minds when they were being constructed. And there remains about them a sense of improvisatory genius - and improvisation is also well within this particular idiom.

One thinks of the acting company in Elizabethan London that picked up and moved its theatre across town, just as in a Filipino barrio one used to move home by picking up the house by its stilts and carrying it off down the street. Suppose that for some reason the Cottesloe had to be moved elsewhere in London, there must be hundreds of buildings into which (at some expense, of course) it would fit.

At much less expense, one could move the Tricycle Theatre (which is, after all, only a construction in scaffolding) out of its accommodating hall in Kilburn High Road and pop it in somewhere else - probably in the course of a day. I do not know whether the Swan could in fact be dismantled, but one feels that in principle it could.

When this kind of space, this courtyard arrangement, is found in Spain, it is called a patio, and I suppose that at the back of our minds when we enjoy theatres of the courtyard type is a sense that this is where our classic theatre comes from. And by the term classic I mean, of course, renaissance. Our classic theatre does not come from Epidaurus, it is not carved out of a hillside. It requires shelter, enclosure, a stage, and a gallery from which to view the stage.

Spanish theatre is similar to the English in this respect. I have seen one of the old patio spaces, but I have never seen a Spanish theatre of the Golden Age, although some have survived, including one I was told of, which was discovered inside an old cinema.

As for Spanish drama of the Golden Age - Lope de Vega, Calderón, Tirso de Molina, Cervantes - it remains the great unexplored. You would think that the Spanish themselves would revel in the repertoire, but sometimes I have asked Spanish acquaintances about this legendary drama of theirs, only to find that they didn't exactly like the thought of it.

Some people say it was tainted by association with the Franco regime - that it belonged to an officially approved culture, which, naturally, would be anathema to a certain kind of artistic spirit. It is also the case that Spanish scholarship has yet to tackle a vast body of literature - poetic as well as dramatic - that has simply not been properly edited or published.

In Britain, the exploration on stage of the Elizabethan and Jacobean repertoire went hand in hand with scholarly work. Some times one has the impression that this scholarly work has really more or less been completed. The latest editions of Shakespeare seem sometimes to be exercises in self-justification. Yet in the past it was typical for British directors to learn at university about the drama they would then realise on stage. Scholarship and criticism fed directly into the theatre.

But nobody could for a moment be under the impression that the scholarly work has been done for the Spanish playwrights of the Golden Age, or for the poetry that is stashed away in unexamined commonplace books in libraries. There remains a vast work ahead.

I was sitting next to a Spanish scholar a few weeks ago, asking him about this strange but exciting state of affairs. And we were agreeing that Something Ought to be Done. A few days later a note arrived from the RSC saying that a season of Spanish plays was being mooted for the Swan at Stratford, and that texts were being examined and translators sought.

This is one of the projects of the new regime at the RSC, a consequence of the changing of the guard and, whatever else is planned or on offer, I wish this venture well. It is not that British theatre has culpably neglected the Spanish repertoire. The situation is curiouser than that - for there have indeed been fruitful sorties in that direction (among them translations by Adrian Mitchell).

What's curious is that whereas we know what the French do with their classic theatre, and the Germans with theirs, we have very little idea of the Spanish take on the Spanish classic repertoire. But we happen to have actors who are trained in a repertoire that is first cousin to the Spanish. And we happen to have some wonderful small theatres that are perfect for this work, of which the pioneering example was the Cottesloe, and the most beautiful the Swan.


James Fenton

The GuardianTramp

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