Southwark Playhouse, London
THE OBSESSION with honour in Spanish Golden Age drama can, to an English sensibility, seem pretty preposterous. All that banging on about reputation, all that stiff-backed hypersensitivity to real (or imagined) insult. It's a shallow self-respect, we tend to feel, that is so morbidly dependent on the behaviour of others (the virtue, say, of a spouse). Falstaff, with his easygoing cynical attitude to honour, would be lucky to have lasted five minutes in such a rigid shame-culture.
As the recent RSC staging of The Painter of Dishonour proved, however, the plays of Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681) have the power to overcome temperamental differences and make a deep impact here. Why? Partly because of the Baroque bravura with which he conveys the tightness of the no-win trap dictated by the honour code; partly because of the piercing intelligence with which he questions the inhumanity of that code, while blocking off easy escape routes.
Mounted now in a rather patchy but ultimately persuasive production by Judith Roberts at Southwark Playhouse, Calderon's The Surgeon of Honour (1635) heightens one's admiration for this dramatist. The tortured grisliness of the world it depicts can be summed up in the final tableau. The hideously jealous Count Gutierre (Nigel Parkin) drags in a sodden bed on which lies the corpse of his wife, whom he has caused to be bled to death by a desperately unwilling doctor for her alleged infidelity with a former lover. To save both his face and hers, he tries to pass this off as a medical accident.
But John Duvall's icy King decides to turn the tables on this double- standard avenger. Like some weird collision between Othello and Measure for Measure, the play boasts not only an honour-obsessed wife-murderer, but a dark horse of a ruler (cf the Duke in Measure) and a one-track-minded woman (a la Shakespeare's Mariana) prepared to have the man who dumped her at any price.
The fixated female, Leonor (Patricia Boyer), is the tricksy means by which the King punishes the horrified Gutierre. A widower now, he is told to marry Leonor. The fact that his hands are literally covered in the blood of his innocent ex-wife isn't exactly a recommendation for his skills as a sensitive husband. But this seems to be an added attraction to Leonor, whose stickling for the honour code verges on pornographic masochism: "If I am sick, Count," she urges, "don't hesitate to cure me..." and she isn't talking about medicine.
The staging has some lapses, but makes a strong case for an unsettling play. A refreshingly more flexible approach to honour is provided by a clown-servant, Coquin (Christopher McInley), who is given the unenviable ultimatum of making the humourless King laugh or having all his teeth pulled out. A man who is set that task in this unsmiling world had better order some dentures quick.
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