As well as putting on plays, Shakespeare’s Globe have been running an educational programme for several years now. One aspect of this is the “Read Not Dead” series – the aim is to put on a staged reading of every play by a contemporary of Shakespeare’s over several years. The series normally concentrates on English language plays, but the rule was broken for the performance I attended, which focused on Lope de Vega’s El mayordomo de la duquesa de Amalfi (The Duchess of Amalfi’s Steward) of around 1604-6. This play was drawn from the same source material as John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a play which I love and which was performed in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse earlier this year.
Before the performance, I attended a Rarely Played lecture in the basement of the theatre, hoping to gain a greater understanding of the play and the context in which it was written. Dr Alexander Samson of UCL explored de Vega’s life and work in a very interesting talk.
Lope de Vega (1562-1635) is the giant of the Spanish Golden Age, a prolific playwright who penned at least 450 plays, was probably involved in at least 800, and claimed to have written over 2000. Cervantes described him as a “fénix de los ingenios” – a phrase which can be loosely translated as a “phoenix of the imagination”. de Vega was also described as a “monstruo de la naturaleza” (monster of nature) because of his massive output. He had a colourful life – his career began in the 1580s when he was only around eighteen, but he still found the time for several marriages, numerous affairs with actresses, and fathering at least fifteen children (only one of whom, sadly, survived him). de Vega became a priest later in life, though this did not seem to stop him having affairs. The playwright practically invented the “comedia nueva”, the basic form of writing a play in Spanish, in 3 acts.
Dr Samson also spoke about the Spanish Golden Age theatre in general, and how it differed from the theatre in England at that time. In Spain, as in England, the theatre was very lively; there was a high turnover of plays, with each production only playing for around five days. This may partly explain Lope de Vega’s prolific output. In terms of the audience, women were segregated, but interestingly, the female parts in theatre were actually played by women, despite considerable criticism. Theatres were run as charities, often making money for the hospital or other organisation to which they were attached. In 1609, Lope de Vega wrote about the new techniques of theatrical writing: he extolled a populist approach, promoted tragicomedy (only ten of his plays were described firmly as tragedies; El mayordomo… is one) and ensured his works were deeply subversive.
So what were the sources and inspirations behind The Duchess of Malfi and El mayordomo de la duquesa de Amalfi? Both were inspired by the true story of Giovanna d’Aragon, which was publicised in Mateo Bandello’s Novelle (1554). Pierre Boaistuau and Francois Belleforest adapted and moralised the tale in their 1559 Histoires Tragiques (1559), while William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure translated and publicised the tale in English in 1567. It is likely that John Webster read Painter’s version, which de Vega probably did not.
In the plays themselves, de Vega employs a brisk, pacy style, very different from Webster’s. We explored some of the text of de Vega’s play, comparing and contrasting his and Webster’s treatment of particular scenes. For instance, Webster’s version affords great prominence to the brothers of the Duchess, while in de Vega’s play only one of the brothers makes an appearance, and that towards the end. Webster has the Duchess tricked with wax models of her husband and children, while de Vega has her see their real decapitated heads. Interestingly, de Vega’s version reminded me more of Shakespeare, with its use of mistaken identity and light relief in the form of the country folk who look after the Duchess’ and Antonio’s children (this doesn’t stop it from being described as a tragedy, though). I found the lecture fascinating and it really whetted my appetite for the subsequent performance.
The Read Not Dead performances take place in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This performance of The Duchess of Amalfi’s Steward (in an English translation by Gwynne Edwards) was directed by Martin Hodgson, and began with a performance by Spanish choral group Coro Cervantes, who really set the mood with their beautiful performance.
It’s amazing to think that the actors only had one day to prepare for the show. Though they performed script-in-hand, they were fluent and clearly had a good understanding of their characters. There were lots of genuinely funny moments as well as a sense of tragedy at the end. Charlie Anson was a very good Antonio, a character who has a bit more personality and agency in this version. I really liked David Oakes as the scheming Ottavio de Medici, as well as Ben Whitrow as Melampo. The whole experience was a memorable one, and while I don’t think that Lope de Vega’s play is as good as The Duchess of Malfi, I had a great afternoon nevertheless.