theatre The Painter of Dishonour, RSC The Other Place, Stratford :REVIEW

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The Independent Culture
Calderon's The Painter of Dishonour was written in 1645, so English theatre can't be accused of over-haste in getting round to considering it. What exactly have we been missing these last three and a half centuries? To judge from the dark zest and full-tilt theatricality of Laurence Boswell's premiere production at the Other Place, this Spanish "honour" play is a compulsively stageable mix of overwrought passion and undercutting comedy, high-minded melodrama and its near-cousin, low farce.

As Boswell's co-translator, David Johnston, puts it in a programme note, this piece also has a "Rubik's cube" quality. The world it depicts may be a hothouse, but there's a Baroque intellectual artifice to its architecture. And even when their guts are churning, the brains of the characters are savouring the weird conceptual shapes into which their experience falls. "God in heaven, that woman asleep / Is the living image of two deaths," remarks the eponymous character (well played by John Carlisle) when, through an irony of fate, he is commissioned by her would-be lover to paint the portrait of the long-estranged wife he thinks has dishonoured him. As the blood rushes from his face, a knotty paradox rushes to his lips.

Boswell won an Olivier Award at the Gate Theatre for the Spanish Golden Age season he masterminded there. So it's not entirely unexpected that the tricky clashing tones of the piece should be orchestrated so well in this production, with its elegant, austerely sombre set, its debunking Irish-accented servants, its circumspect intensity and its excellent incidental music (by Paddy Cuneen) which seems to shadow the melodrama both hand- on-heart and tongue-slightly-in-cheek. One minute, in a scene set in a hunting lodge absurdly overbooked with people hiding from one another, heads keep popping up out of trapdoors to deliver panicky asides. In the next that hilarity freezes, as out springs the red-masked face of the Death figure who stalks the action throughout.

The message of the play is indeed chilling. A complicated plot questions the inhumanity of the personal honour code. That a man's good name should be dependent on the morality of others comes to seem degrading to the self-exiled hero. The code closes in again, though, with a vengeance, when the painter kills his innocent, misjudged wife and her abductor, and the fathers of the deceased piously endorse murder committed "in honour's name". Not for the first time, I found myself thinking that what this masochistic culture needed was a good dose of Falstaff.

In rep at the Other Place. (Box office: 01789 295623)