Don Gil of the Green Breeches is one of three plays that makes up the Arcola Theatre’s Spanish Golden Age season. The piece is rife with characters donning multiple disguises, repeated cases of mistaken identity and a tangled web of lies, all of which form a complex yet comical plot. The theme of honour was prevalent in seventeenth century drama, and this Tirso de Molina play, written in 1615, is no exception. Donna Juana is angered that Don Martin (the man she loves and intends to marry) has abandoned her to pursue the wealthy Donna Ines, in a match clearly motivated by money rather than love. Following hot on Don Martin’s heels, Donna Juana decides to disguise herself as a rival male suitor, hoping that by doing so she will be able to prevent the marriage by seducing Donna Ines herself. To make this premise even more convoluted, both Don Martin and Donna Juana decide to operate under the same pseudonym, ‘Don Gil’, differentiated only by a pair of green breeches.
Don Gil of the Green Breeches could easily be referred to as a Spanish version of Twelfth Night. Not only are there similarities between Donna Juana’s and Viola’s cross-dressing guises, but in both works much of the comedy derives from the dramatic irony of the audience being the only constant figure who knows the true identity of all the characters. As Donna Juana, Hedydd Dylan is extremely skilled at accentuating the duplicitous nature of the text, particularly when addressing the audience directly during her humourous asides. Many belly laughs are also produced during the scenes in which Donna Ines (Katie Lightfoot) keeps remarking on the physical similarities between Donna Juana and Don Gil, statements that are made all the more comical by the fact that she is oblivious that she is referring to one and the same person.
The common pitfall with translating works of literature is that they can end up sounding quite stilted, lacking the nuances and overall essence of the original text. I am pleased to report that translator Sean O’Brien didn’t fall victim to this, and you don’t feel like anything got lost in translation. Brien’s version of Molina’s play not only captures the finesse of the original, but where possible also maintains the rhyme in the prose. Brien includes musical interludes in the piece, which as well providing divertissement also uphold a dramatic device that many writers of the Golden Age used at the time. Furthermore, in this production the musical numbers are accompanied by the sounds of a strumming Spanish guitar and fast-paced castanets, which reinforce the work’s cultural heritage.
Although Don Gil of the Green Breeches is firmly rooted in Spain, many of the play’s themes such as unrequited love, deception and jealousy make for a timeless and universal work. The calibre of this cast is extremely high, and personally I don’t think that there is a single weak performance among them. As well as this gem of a production, the company are also performing two Lope de Vega plays in rep (Punishment Without Revenge and A Lady of Little Sense). As a language graduate myself, I know that all too often brilliant plays such as these are left sitting on bookshelves gathering dust. It is a real joy to see a Golden Age play brought to life and executed so well on stage. Although the plot of Don Gil of the Green Breeches may seem mind-boggling at first, once I’d pieced it all together this comedic and chaotic farce is a true delight to watch.
Don Gil of the Green Breeches is being performed at the Arcola Theatre until 15 March. For tickets and more information please visit the Arcola Theatre website.