It was a hot and steamy night. The air was thick, the fans were fluttering, useful camouflage as deep and meaningful glances were exchanged beneath flimsy mantillas.
And that was just in the audience, for London last night put on appropriate weather for the opening of the Arcola's season of plays by Federico Garcia Lorca, marking the 70th anniversary of the death of the would-be poet of the revolution, who was executed by Fascist militia at the start of the Spanish Civil War.
On stage, the emotional temperature was straining the mercury. This is early Lorca, and it feels very much like the effort of a young man — the play’s passionate extravagences here given full rein with a staging that involves much flinging of arms, much being swept into a loved-one's arms. There's a real trap of cliche here — all these "hot-blooded Latins" and sudden outbursts – and it is a trap that Max Key's production doesn't even try to avoid.
We are taken, in the overblown poetry of Lorca (translated here with directness by Gywnne Edwards), to a time before irony (or at least so it seems). It is a time of simple moral choices, a time of clear evil (in the person of the king's violent representative in the form of Don Pedro (Ben Nathan) and apparently clear goodness, in the "selfless" devotion of the would-be revolutionaries. It is a time when "liberal" and "anarchist" can be grouped into the same breath. It is a long way from today.
A simple gesture can have great significance, as in the sewing of a flag by Mariana Pineda – for this is the gesture for which, at least in law, she will be executed. Pandora Colin makes a brave stab at this difficult role, in which she hardly ever leaves the stage. Yet it's a tough ask. As she stands in the convent/jail that will be her last home, she faces the prospect of death, trembling with fear, yet determined, and expresses all of this in rounded blank verse. And she's a character who's the heroine of the revolution, and yet she's doing it all, it seems, simply for passionate, desperate, grasping love of a man patently unworthy of such devotion, the conspirator Pedrosa (Ben Nathan). He does a nice line a dramatic cloak-swirling and passionate declaration, but when the chips are down is happy to skip off to safe old England — happy refuge of the would-be revolutionary.
In the background is the callow youth Fernando (Geoff Breton), always ready to try to save his beloved, who treats him with careless disdain. But is he in love with her, or with the idea of love itself? Then there's Angustias, Mariana's mother, who just wants the young widow to settle down nicely with a proper respectable man. ("If a king doesn't rule as he should it is hardly a woman's concern" is a line delivered with particular relish). Finally there's the faithful retainer Clavela, being all very faithful retainerish.
Perhaps some of this wasn't cliche in 1925 when the play was written, based on the historical events of 1831, when the real Mariana ( a widow of just 20 years) was executed by garotte, leaving behind three small children. An awful lot of it is now, and from the nuns processing with candles to the switch between red and white dresses, this production doesn't aim for a surprise, for that sudden jolt of recognition that comes from an original idea.
That’s not to say it hasn’t got its strengths; it gets away with the melodrama by means of sheer effrontery, the refusal to be embarrassed by the most extreme display. And there is some chemistry, a real crackle on stage, coming sometimes from Colin and notably from the brief appearance of the show-off sister Amparo (Rachel Edwards).
Consequently, this would be a great “date show”. It would perhaps encourage passionate argument, but equally forceful making-up.
The theatre. The production continues until August 19. Tickets: £12/£8. Phone: 020 7503 1646.