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Theatre review: Love and marriage

The Shoemaker's Wondrous Wife; Don Perlimplin

BAC, London

Federico Garcia Lorca was born 100 years ago next Friday, 5 June. To mark the occasion, Absolute Theatre has revived two early works almost unknown here.

Far from being an exercise in teeth-grating, barrel-scraping, this lovingly presented double-bill of La zapatera prodigiosa and El amor de Don Perlimplin, newly translated by John Edmunds, provides both a fascinating insight into the maturing of Lorca's prodigious talent and an evening's vivid entertainment, played with an uncharacteristic lack of British reserve.

La zapatera prodigiosa (The Shoemaker's Wondrous Wife), being given its UK premiere, was first performed in 1930. Like Don Perlimplin (1933), it takes as its subject a marriage between a lusty young woman and a shrivelled older man. The title promises a fantastical fable which Lorca delivers with ironic relish and bizarre poetry.

The wife in question is, so the "author" announces in his prologue, anything but wondrous - in fact, she is an ordinary character who has been "shackled to farce" just as wedlock has shackled her to a man old enough to be her father. She is exceptional to the blinkered rustic souls around her, though; upheld first as shrew incarnate and finally as a paragon of wifely virtue.

The ostensible cause of this fairy-tale about-turn is a play-within-a- play: after fleeing his teenage bride's barbed tongue, the man who married out of middle-aged whimsy rather than love returns in the guise of a Filipino puppet-master, re-enacts their story and, amazed to find his wife has stayed faithful, effects a reconciliation.

You can almost see Relate turning this into a therapy video. Then again, perhaps not. For, as Andrew Pratt's attentively stylised account suggests, the social forces compelling the couple to stick together are stronger than either one's power to forge a separate path. We are not so very far from the stifling marital incompatibilities of Yerma and Blood Wedding, with their blood-stained bolt holes.

A formidable quartet of women in garish taffeta dresses and petticoats swishes imperiously in and out of Jessica Worrall's surreal painting of a slanting yellow interior. Cackling with glee, flapping their fans and stamping their boots in staccatoed synchronicity, they stand inches away from the bickering pair, conjuring a Dali-esque nightmare where walls really do have ears.

The air of menace that lurks in the folk-songs that tempt Sarah Jane Field's wife with the prospect of romance and tease Simon Wright's endearingly harrassed shoemaker with the prospect of cuckoldry escalates into real persecution once he has fled - the women hemming her in until she cries out.

Field doesn't always make the best of a difficult job. Seemingly undecided as to whether the wife's behaviour is sympathetic or not, she often simply shouts her lines. Rarely do we get the sense that her peevishness is the product of intolerable outside pressure.

She is better suited to the blank mask of the man-eating femme fatale in Don Perlimplin, the second and shorter piece. Played at experimental full-throttle - phrases are uttered and postures adopted in drugged time to the mechanical scrapings of a cymbal - its final tortured theatrical image, of a husband who disguises himself as his wife's lover and slays himself, will have marrieds and non-marrieds making a bee-line for the bar.

To 7 June, 8pm. Booking: 0171-223 2223