The prospect of seeing a play by a 17th-century Mexican nun is not one to set the pulses racing. Nor would you expect to emerge from such a drama with a silly grin plastered all over your face.
The prospect of seeing a play by a 17th-century Mexican nun is not one to set the pulses racing. Nor would you expect to emerge from such a drama with a silly grin plastered all over your face. But that is precisely what happens at Nancy Meckler's sparkling production of House of Desires - a piece by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, which forms the latest instalment in the Royal Shakespeare Company's admirable Spanish Golden Age season. Here we get a mischievously seditious female angle on the dominant macho code of honour. The surprise, though, is that medium she uses is fleet-footed farce. It may have been written in a convent, but the spirit of the show is more Ray Cooney than T S Eliot.
Sor Juana (1651-1695) was an intellectual phenomenon. When she was 13, the Viceroy of Mexico pitted her wits against 40 erudite men, whom she proceeded to demolish, he noted, "like a royal galleon defending itself against a few rowing boats".
She entered a convent a few years later, remarking that "although I knew that this life had many things that were repugnant to my nature... it was less than the abhorrence I felt for marriage". Here, a woman could pursue her studies, but not, as she was to find, without encountering a backlash.
Perceiving an affinity between author and heroine, Meckler's production smuggles Juana into the proceedings. We see her, at the start, in the convent, penning the events as they unfold on stage. Then she discards her habit and becomes the gifted, strong-willed Dona Leonor (the splendid Rebecca Johnson), who appears to be a portrait of the artist as she might have been in an alternative, worldly existence.
Dona Leonor and her beau Don Carlos (the dashing Joseph Millson) are ambushed and separated during an attempted elopement. They both fetch up at the house of the absurdly stiff and self-regarding Don Pedro (William Buckhurst). The snag is that he also has the hots for Leonor, while Pedro's sister Dona Ana (Claire Cox) is violently smitten with Carlos. Throw in a rejected suitor of Ana (the fuming Oscar Pearce) and you get a turbulent labyrinth of misdirected desire, confused identity and raging jealousy.
Meckler stages these convoluted antics with terrific pace and a lovely teasing wit. For example, as in Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy, two very funny scenes, where the characters grope about in pitch darkness with predatory intent, are presented under strong light so that their ludicrous blunderings offer a crazy, cartoon-like picture of the blindness of passion.
Sor Juana's play offers a particularly droll take on the idea of drag. The winning Simon Trinder, with his wonderful audience rapport, has emerged as the RSC's star comic. He's on riotous form here as the servant Castano, who, in order to save his bacon, has to clamber into Dona Leonor's clothes. The delicious twist is that, as this cheerful dolt dolls up, he gets increasingly aroused by himself and by his effect on other men. A shrewd female insight in a play that, while no masterpiece, is more than a collector's item.
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