In the interval of a preview of The Dog in the Manger - the astringent and hilarious Lope de Vega comedy that launches the RSC's season of Spanish Golden Age drama - I run into Laurence Boswell, who, as well as directing this show, has masterminded the entire project. I tell him that I have overheard several punters remarking appreciatively that you can really tell that the play derives from a culture quite different from Shakespeare's - even though the two geniuses were born within two years of each other (Lope, first, in 1562).
"Yes," laughs Boswell, "and one way they can tell is that they can actually understand this play." It's a typically mischievous comment, designed to draw attention to how the density and complexity of the language in Shakespeare can leave modern audiences mystified, whereas the sparer vocabulary, the lesser insistence on social specificity and the primal, folk-tale nature of much Spanish Golden Age drama afford a clarity that crosses the centuries. Especially when the pieces are rendered with the immediacy of the translations commissioned here from writers such as James Fenton, whose version of Tirso de Molina's biblical tragedy Tamar's Revenge is the next play to be premiered in the festival.
Boswell is a burly, bouncy and bonhomous figure with an appropriate bit of a Latin streak. He first put the drama of 17th-century Spain back on the map when he worked alongside Stephen Daldry at the Gate Theatre, in Notting Hill, in the early 1990s. His efforts produced an unheard-of result: the tiny Gate won the Olivier award for outstanding achievement for its Spanish season. One episode from that period helps to convey the character of the man. Boswell succeeded Daldry (who had graduated to running the Royal Court). During his first year as boss, he buttonholed me at some reception and told me that he thought I had been deliberately soft on his last production from an overweening desire to be supportive of the new regime.
The message, in other words, was: don't patronise me with positiveness if you don't mean it. Leaving aside the fact that I had indeed meant the praise sincerely, the key point is that you don't, to put it mildly, get many directors who would make such a complaint. Here is a man who likes honesty enough to haggle for it. And that is a good thing now, as we meet to discuss the new RSC Spanish Golden Age festival and Boswell's career in general, for I have a few home truths up my sleeve about his unholy collaboration in the West End with Madonna in the unfortunate (and not even terribly profitable) Up for Grabs.
A Coventry boy from a working-class background, Boswell tells me that his aim in creating theatre is "to produce something that I and my brother, who is a scaffolder, and my mum, who has been a typist and a mother, can all three of us sit down and enjoy". That's what unifies a CV that looks a touch dichotomous - productions of classics that extend and redefine our notion of the Renaissance repertoire, on the one hand; and, on the other, stonking great populist West End shows, either courtesy of Ben "Popcorn" Elton (with whom Boswell studied drama at Manchester University) or in the form of media-event productions that give Hollywood stars the chance to use West End theatre as a kind of debutantes' ball.
Because her Madgesty fancied acting in the West End, a mediocre play with an Australian setting was rewritten so as to have a Manhattan focus, its meaning nullified by the Central Casting. A satire on the absurd inflation of the art market was not best led by a performer whose mere attendance in the project caused tickets to change hands for £500.
Boswell remains good-humoured throughout my quiet diatribe about Madonna's startling lack of stage talent and technique ("Actually, she does move well. So, sometimes we rehearsed scenes as though they were a dance, and then she came to life") and about how she simply did not know how to connect with the other actors ("It got better during the run. She's so used to videos, where everything - the lighting, the blocking - is arranged around her alone...). And he proffers the information that he is not the only English director she has pursued (the others include Patrick Marber and Nick Hytner). With a gratified guffaw, he relates how David Mamet, in whose play Speed-the-Plow Madonna made her straight-acting stage debut, has since declared: "I'll burn in hell for letting her say my words."
But then Boswell says that working with her "has helped me to understand the Elizabethan court. She just has so much power, and people adjust to that power. There were advisers huddled in corners..." I have to make a protest. Elizabeth I could have people flung in prison, tortured and subjected to the most hideous deaths. While Madonna's acting is certainly no picnic to sit through, her power to hurt is, I suggest, surely minimal by comparison with the Virgin Queen's. I am assured that she has the capacity to create a climate of fear and of personal entitlement that quite bereaves those around her of the ability to tell her where to get off.
More fertile comparisons with the Elizabethan and Jacobean era will be provoked by the Spanish Golden Age season, which, admirably wide-ranging, will also include a play by Cervantes (Pedro, the Great Pretender) and House of Desires by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, "a unique woman - a nun who was born and lived in Mexico and an extraordinary, prolific artist who wrote with an original voice".
Potentially fascinating is the way that these plays will run in rep at the Swan (a theatre configured roughly like the courtyards in which they were originally performed) and create cross-currents with the Shakespearean repertoire in the RSC's other venues. The juxtaposition, one hopes, will fruitfully defamiliarise what we think we know all too well. For example, there are curious affinities between Twelfth Night and Lope de Vega's The Dog in the Manger, which opens tonight. The cardinal difference, though, lies in the obsessive Spanish concept of "honour", which both inhibits the Countess Diana from marrying her secretary, Teodoro, and drives her to torment him by refusing him permission to marry anyone else. The play is a dazzling critique of the honour code: when a witty servant engineers a scenario wherein Teodoro is "discovered" to be the long-lost son of a nobleman, Diana is only too willing to go along with the deception. Honour is exposed as being mainly a matter of show.
Opening up new realms of dramaturgy and putting the English canon into arresting new perspectives, Boswell's season is exactly what the RSC should be doing and makes a supreme case for its public subsidy.
The Spanish Golden Age, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (0870 609 1110; www.rsc.org.uk) 14 April to 2 OctoberReuse content