Stage Review: A Lady of Little Sense at the Arcola

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Bath, UK. 12.09.2013. The Spanish Golden Age season, curated by Laurence Boswell, opens with A LADY OF LITTLE SENSE, by Lope de Vega, translated by David Johnston, in the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath. Directed by Laurence Boswell, with lighting design by Ben Ormerod and set and costume design by Mark Bailey. Picture shows: Nick Barber (Laurencio), Katie Lightfoot (Nise), Chris Andrew Mellon (Duardo) and Doug Rao (Leandro). Photograph © Jane Hobson.

A Lady of Little Sense is a seventeenth century Spanish play by Lope de Vega and has just finished its run at the Arcola as part of Laurence Boswell’s Spanish Golden Age Season.

A patrician of Madrid seeks to marry off his two daughters. So far, so Taming of the Shrew. Both are beautiful, but where Nise is an erudite if arrogant scholar, Finea is completely stupid. Naturally, Finea has the higher dowry.

An impoverished noble called Liseo arrives in Madrid to marry Finea, but is horrified when he discovered she is “as thick as potato mash”. Meanwhile, Nise’s preferred suitor Laurencio decides he’d rather have Finea’s money. What ensues is a farcical two hours of swapping suitors and Machiavellian machinations. But amidst all the madness a wistful love story slowly develops between Finea and Laurencio as she develops a remarkable intellect in response to his love – or, more honestly, through the magical power of an act break.

Frances McNamee’s Finea is by turns ignorant, childish or deranged

The play is in equal parts charming and bawdy, two modes that do not always sit easily along one another. Frances McNamee’s Finea is by turns ignorant, childish or deranged, rarely settling into one choice for more than a scene. Consequently Laurencio’s very sensual seduction is occasionally jarring – you can see exactly why her father finds it so disturbing, even if he is planning to marry her off anyway.

Frances McNamee in A Lady of Little Sense Image: Jane Hobson
Frances McNamee in A Lady of Little Sense Image: Jane Hobson

Still, Nick Barber cuts a dashing, classic lothario as Laurencio, halfway between a louche Petruchio and a charming Dread Pirate Roberts.  It would, perhaps, have added a more touching note to the play’s conclusion if there had been a hint that Laurencio’s motives had changed from financial to romantic – certainly McNamee’s heartfelt performance leaves you longing for her love to be returned.

Where the play excels is in David Johnston’s witty translation and the cast’s quick delivery. They present de Vega’s sauce with such rapidity there’s no time to dwell on the awkward implications between laughs. Although the sexual politics haven’t been updated to modern standards, the language of the play perfectly marries four hundred year old implication with more explicit innuendo.

When it goes fully camp – and some set pieces of physical comedy and swashbuckling music by Jon Nicholl ensure that it does – A Lady of Little Sense is a real rib-tickler.