A Lady of Little Sense is one of three plays in the Spanish Golden Age Season at the Arcola, transferred from the Ustinov Studio in Bath, two of which are by Lope de Vega (1562 – 1635).
Although not often staged in the English-speaking world, Lope de Vega’s plays are familiar in Spain and Latin America. He was an incredibly prolific author, with some 3 novels, 4 novellas, 9 epic poems, 3,000 sonnets and about 1,800 plays being attributed to him. Félix Arturo Lope de Vega y Carpio, to give him his full name, was, with Miguel de Cervantes, Tirso de Molina and Pedro Calderón de la Barca, one of the major literary figures of the Spanish Golden Century. Although the quality of his output is quite variable, that still leaves about four score of his three-act plays judged as works of quality, of which The Lady Boba (1613) is one.
This production uses a very accessible modern translation by David Johnston, which suits the repartee of this absorbing, albeit imperfect, comedy. At its core, it is about the transformative power of love, with the plot revolving around two sisters, both beautiful, but one highly intelligent and learned yet somewhat arrogant, and the other extremely stupid, who their domineering father is keen to marry off.
For prospective suitors, there is a catch: the dull sister, Finea, comes with a vast dowry in Spanish ‘gold from the Indies’ (meaning the Americas), whereas her clever sister, Nise, does not. To be sure, it is Finea, reputed to be “a fool, a lurching shambolic muttering and mumbling idiot”, who is miraculously transformed by love.
In its format, this comedy has elements that are reminiscent of Shakespeare, but it also has affinities to the romantic comedies of the English Restoration. It is much closer to its British cousins than one might expect of Spanish drama and contains the various tricks of the trade that one associates with comedies of the period – including double entendres, puns, wise aphorisms, misunderstandings which unravel, twists in the plot and, of course, unbridled farce.
The acting is mostly accomplished, with the star performers being three of the actresses, Frances McNamee (Finea), Katie Lightfoot (Nisa) and Annie Hemingway (the serving maid Clara) who also happen to have the best roles in this play. There are also noteworthy performances from William Hoyland as the domineering father and Nick Barber as Laurencio, who, for sure, is on the make but in the marriage department is only seeking a mate with homespun qualities: “The essentials of womanhood lie in her wifely qualities, and no woman is ever held foolish, because her silence is her virtue. Simon Scardifield is able to achieve less on the stage with his part as Liseo, the other suitor.
One of the high points of hilarity comes early, the attempt of a tutor to teach Finea the alphabet, using cards (see image). It is a fast-moving drama, funny throughout and with some particularly amusing touches, such as the line-up of musicians in the minstrel gallery (Act 3, Scene 6), attired in black and white, reminiscent a group portrait of the Spanish Golden Age. Mark Bailey’s brilliant costumes are closely studied copies of that period, reflecting the finery of Spanish aristocracy in the early Baroque age. The highly distinctive costumes help to ensure that actors playing multiple roles (Chris Mellon, Doug Rao, and Jim Bywater) do not get confused by the audience.
This production is a delightful confection and can be particularly recommended if you are looking for an enjoyable and relaxing evening out. This and the other two plays in this Spanish Golden Age Season also provide a splendid opportunity to gain some familiarity with the rich dramatic heritage of the Iberian Peninsula.