The problem with the Spanish play

Wellington's Circa Theatre tackles the difficult Spanish drama Blood Wedding with mixed results

Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca, which dates from 1933, is the first of a trilogy of late dramatic works, written in blank verse—the others are Yerma (1935) and The House of Bernada Alba (1936)—and performed in the years immediately preceding the Spanish Civil War of which Lorca himself was an early and very public victim. The House of Bernada Alba has been frequently revived since, the other two plays less so. There are good reasons for this, some to do with changing taste (The House with its quintet of imprisoned, not to say entombed young sisters, resonates strongly in a modern context) others more a reflection of linguistic and dramatic problems that even the most inventive of theatres may find it hard to solve.

Circa’s recent attempt to undo the complexities of Blood Wedding (Bodas de Sangre is the Spanish title) was most welcome, and not only because it was a courageous statement of the theatre’s continuing commitment to serious dramatic art, but because it signaled an intention to allow poetry to continue to be a part of the language of the stage, a language much debased in recent years by careless and vulgar vernacular. But this play is difficult. A problem play in the same way that Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is a problem play. One in which human motivations seem inexplicable. And the problem is emphasised by a poetic text itself enriched in the remarkable translation by Ted Hughes employed for this

At the heart of Blood Wedding there is a technical void in the drama. The Bride, on her wedding day, after the ceremony but before consummation, runs away with a former suitor, Leonardo, himself already a married man and a father. This disastrous decision leads inevitably to both his own death and that of the Bridegroom: the making of two new widows and an orphan. In accordance with Lorca’s well-documented attachment to the practices of classical Greek tragedy, the violent deaths of the principal males takes place off stage, and is reported to the audience by a penumbra of characters who alternatively either take specific roles or function collectively as a chorus. Much of the drama has to be
gleaned from little information—in particular the reasons for the Bride’s devotion to and love for the former suitor, which is not much accounted for. And this is made worse by the fact that one big essential scene is simply missing from the play.

This void occurs after the Bride has said that she is going to take a rest, when the next we hear is that she has run away. The intervening event, a moment of great theatrical and poetic power, in which we must assume she declares her love for Leonardo, they each renounce their commitments, and agree to take the impossible step of elopement, this scene, which ought to be the heart of the play, is missing. And this is the theatrical problem, the reason why the play is
little performed. At the height of the drama the dramatist failed the play.

Ted Hughes knew a thing or two about love, tragedy, inconstancy and the consequences of betrayal. And he knew a very great deal about Mediterranean cultures, the deep pressures of omerta in one, of honour and pride in another; the historic importance of land to peasant farmers; the power of pagan loyalties under a strict Catholic morality. He spoke many of their languages. His poetic grip on all of this in his translation of Blood Wedding is incisive. But even he cannot overcome the problem of the missing heart of the play.

Why? we ask ourselves. Why did these two characters do it? Hughes certainly knew that it was a theatrical weakness. In a letter to John Greening of November 1977 he wrote: “But the real power of a play is never in the language—though the language might make it a powerful poem. The dramatic power, it seems to me, is always in the action—generated by collisions, irreconcilable energies, thunderbolts from the malicious god of circumstance and fact, and the inability of events to foresee or avert their outcome.”

It is hard not to believe, therefore, that Hughes’s interest in Blood Wedding was in spite of its dramatic weakness, and that what he deeply valued in it was its poetry, the language (as he put it) that makes it a powerful poem. The most significant consequence of this is the burden that it places on a director and cast to give the poetry its due. And this, in turn unfortunately, is where the Circa production came unstuck.

Leonardo, played by Dean O’Gorman, should be a figure of magnetism and menace. How else are we to account for his behaviour or its effect on others? Here he was played as a strutting, bellowing imitation of a comic book Spaniard, stamping his feet in some sort of charade of a bar room Castillian dancer (Lorca, incidentally, was from Andalusia where, in any event, they do things differently). The poetry of his menace and his pride, written in the service of a drama of passionate desire, was for the most part lost, inaudible by its sheer volume as shouted and gabbled to the rafters. Similarly, Carmel McGlone as Death ruined the beautiful language of her immense scene at the end of the play by shouting not to say screaming the plain verse that begs to be heard in stillness. How much superior Geraldine Brophy as the Mother when she says, with steel calm: “Quiet. Be quiet.” And again, shortly afterwards: “I said, be quiet.” There was too little of this in the play.

The supporting cast was game. The set was excellent. The use of props and the choreography of the movement of players skillful and well rehearsed. Gareth Farr’s music—presumably deliberately devised to take the play as far away from Spain as possible (difficult)—was interesting if largely, I thought, inappropriate, though Carmel McGlone’s singing early on was stunning and suggested much that might have been but, alas, never was.

Actors perform as directors require. The faults of this production stem, presumably, from Willem Wassenaar, who, in deciding to take the play as far out of a Spanish setting as he could, and then relegating the dramatic verse, the poetry, to a form of over-spoken hysteria, further damaged a problem play, and made a disappointing performance out of a verse drama that in Ted Hughes’s brilliant translation makes free verse into a form of humane worship. Here, most of the humanity and all of the divinity of the poetry was lost to an unnecessarily forced theatrical language of noise and empty gesture.