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So anyway,
Because what the Net really needs is another person sharing his uninformed views
Theatre review: Fuente Ovejuna 
14th-Aug-2010 07:11 pm
OK, so before we get started I should point out there was no programme for this show (someone on Front of House said one would be available by the interval but it failed to materialise; on the plus side, there were actual real humans on FoH, which is a bit of a rarity for a matinee at Southwark Playhouse. They've also figured out that turning some lights on in the bar might stop people walking into walls/each other.) So I can't actually tell you who anyone was, which is a shame as I might have wanted to pay some compliments. There is a list of the actors on the official website, but as there's 11 of them I wouldn't want to hazard a guess at matching names to faces, so will just have to do what I can.

I wasn't going to bother with Fuente Ovejuna but at my last trip to this theatre I picked up a flier, and I'm a sucker for bad-taste jokes in publicity materials so the promise of "songs, romance and lynching" made me give it a go. Presented by Tangram Theatre Company it's a show heavy on audience participation and we know how that's tended to go this year but things start well. The auditorium is set up with plain banks of seating and a bare stage, with a band in the corner playing party/wedding favourites (I was told they at least try to get a different band for every performance) and some of the actors are already on stage "partying" and chatting with the audience. I was approached by one of the "bad guys" (played by a large moustache with actor attachment) who'd said about half a sentence to me before going "You're here to review, aren't you?" Whoa, am I becoming that obvious? I don't even take notes! (Although technically he was wrong - I was there to see the play because I wanted to, it just happens I was going to review it afterwards, mainly for my own benefit.) A few of the actors were also hidden among the audience, but this was a bit pointless 'cause (a) they stood out a mile and (b) within moments of the show starting they had all revealed themselves as part of the cast.

Lope de Vega's play isn't one I've seen before but by the end I realised I was familiar with its basic story, or at least the true events it was based on - a Spanish village that was being oppressed by a military commander, and rose up together to kill him; under pressure from the authorities nobody gave up one particular culprit, instead insisting it was the village of Fuente Ovejuna itself wot done it. It's understandable how that sort of show of community can take on mythical qualities. What it also shows is that adaptor/director Daniel Goldman has actually figured out why the story suits an approach that heavily includes the audience, it being so much about crowds coming together as one. And having said they were going to use the audience the company actually did, which involves actually doing some tricky work to convince people to take part, as opposed to, oh, let's say, telling everyone they're either French or English, AND THEN NEVER MENTIONING IT AGAIN¹.

The audience participation increases after the interval² as the staging becomes promenade, utilising some of the lesser-used parts of the old rail tunnel network. For the most part the uses of non-realistic storytelling work as well, and although some of the detail about the teenage local lord (played by an actress in a coat) and his relationship with the raping and terrorising commander were lost on me, most of the story was pretty clear. The cast fall into the action with energy and there's many entertaining performances - the girl playing the bride is moving, and there's a lot of funny moments from one of the groom's friends (played by Adrian Chiles in his younger years³) which nicely paves the way for when he has a dramatic scene later on.

I actually find shows with this degree of actor/audience interaction hard to review: Although it isn't the reason for them doing it, inevitably these kind of shows have an atmosphere of "we're having a lovely time, aren't we? Please say nice things about us, we're all friends now!" which tends to put me on the defensive instead. So if I do come out of it with mostly positive feelings that's got to be a good sign. If you've committed to doing a show where so much depends on the cooperation of what could, for all you know, be a hostile audience, you have to be pretty confident. So there's a danger of that going too far and coming across as arrogance, or the feeling that the actors are having a much better time than the audience. The members of Tangram do a good job of maintaining a tricky balance, and producing an entertaining and involving show that feels as if it knows exactly why every narrative trick is there.

Fuente Ovejuna by Lope de Vega in a version by Daniel Goldman is booking until the 28th of August at Southwark Playhouse.

¹I wonder if I'll ever review something at the Southwark Playhouse without mentioning Henry V? But it'd be like returning to the scene of an atrocity and only talking about how nice the trees are. You can't go to the room where William Shakespeare got bumraped and not have it stir up painful memories.

²during which a wedding party is acted out, once again including the audience. I did agree to dance when asked by one of the actresses (who also played Queen Isabella in some scenes) although my reticence was mainly 'cause I was trying to figure out why, of all the songs the band could have chosen as a "coupley" track, they went for "Nothing Compares 2U." I could not, however, be convinced to join a conga line. There are limits.

³except this quy was quite cute and La Chiles does nothing for me, so maybe not.
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