FRINGE ROUND-UP

The Jewess of Toledo Bridewell Airswimming Battersea Arts Centre
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The Independent Culture
Forgive me if I'm not automatically impressed by the first British production of a work by the "Spanish Shakespeare", Lope De Vega. Between 1574 and 1635, De Vega is reputed to have written around 1,500 plays, of which a mere 500 or so survive. It was a feat that prompted Cervantes to dub him "a monster of nature", and was made all the more remarkable by the fact that De Vega still found time to join the Armada, become a priest, adventure in the Azores and dally with a string of mistresses. If his quality control had failed once in a while and the odd play was forgotten, who'd be surprised?

It's a double pleasure, then, to discover that The Jewess of Toledo (Bridewell) is no hack-work. In the richness of its imagery and the sureness of its purpose, this tale of the conflicting passion and piety of the crusader- king Alfonso VIII stands favourable comparison with its Jacobean near- contemporaries The Changeling and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. It also suggests that the treasure trove of De Vega's writing - opened by Declan Donnellan when he directed Fuente Ovejuna at the National Theatre in 1989, and regularly plundered since by Laurence Boswell - may be far from empty.

The obscurity of The Jewess has much to do with its peculiar structure. It begins not at the court of the adult Alfonso but during his childhood, when the 10-year-old king appears in Toledo and demands allegiance from the people. An alarming figure, the boy-warrior thinks nothing of having a traitor's eyes plucked out. He brandishes his precocious sexuality with the same fervour as his first sword. What tenderness he has is channelled towards women. He takes very seriously his knightly pledge to defend their rights. When a female courtier offers to help him on with his spurs, Alfonso is horribly discomfited: "Is there no way round this, then?" he asks.

Having established Alfonso's strengths and weaknesses, the action leaps forward years. Now a respected monarch, Alfonso has married the daughter of Richard the Lionheart. Having returned to Toledo, he visits the banks of the Tagus, where he spies Rachel the Jewess bathing. Where the queen is a "frozen angel", Rachel is all fire and light. Alfonso swiftly puts aside his scruples about her Jewish blood. Back at the palace, the queen sickens from jealousy. In the supremely sexy scene that ends the first half, Rachel and the king perform a mating dance, swirling swords and striking poses, before she leaps into the air and practically impales herself upon him. The next scene finds them still together seven years later, and the kingdom going to pot.

As the play progresses, its perverse structure begins to pay dividends. The king's childhood self returns as a phantom: "Think, Alfonso, about your actions," he warns. The king's son (played by the same actor who plays the young Alfonso) is also a kind of ghost, re-living Alfonso's loveless childhood and reminding him who he once was. "You have been dead for the past seven years," he tells his father, with the same steeliness shown by the boy Alfonso.

When Alfonso considers killing his son, it is evident that this literal murder will also be a suicide. This relationship, between Alfonso and his past self, dominates the play, rather than his doomed love affair with the sympathetic Rachel. Reflection, not passion, comes to dominate. Indeed, the last act pretty conclusively gives the lie to those Jacobean stereotypes of hot-blooded southern Europeans intent upon nothing but revenge.

Colin Ellwood's production is the first outing for Strangers' Gallery, a group made up largely of ex-RSC members. It would be wrong to single anyone out, because one of their strengths is that they act in the unshowy manner of a genuine company. It is an auspicious debut.

Time-shifts are also central to Airswimming (BAC), Charlotte Jones's delightful comedy about two sane women - one the mother of a bastard child, the other a "cigar-smoking, monomaniac transsexual" - confined to a mental hospital. It flips between the 1920s and the 1970s with a spritely ease that would do Lope De Vega proud, dips into the life of Doris Day, and has some very funny dancing and synchronised swimming. There is no room to do it justice here. But it's the sort of show that makes you want to be an actor; and the fact that Jones wrote it as well as playing Dorph, the bossy military-minded lesbian, makes one doubly envious.

`The Jewess of Toledo' is at the Bridewell, London EC4 (0171-936 3456) to 1 Mar. `Airswimming' is at BAC, London SW11 (0171-223 2223) to 16 Feb

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