Acquiring glowing reviews during its Stratford run, this RSC production of Lope de Vega’s romantic comedy is a real gem. Part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Spanish Golden Age season – along with Sor Juana Ins de la Cruz’s House of Desires and Miguel Cervantes’ Pedro, The Great Pretender – this sparkling farce is probably the highpoint of what has proved to be an intriguing, inspired series.
Set in Naples, de Vega’s play tells the story of the independent, headstrong Diana, Countess of Belfor, a woman in the habit of seeing off the various men in pursuit of her hand, until that is, she finds herself becoming increasingly attracted to her personal secretary Teodoro, a man distinctly lacking in noble blood. This is not a union that the rigid society they inhabit would readily permit, and things are complicated further by Teodoro’s existing relationship with Marcela, another member of Diana’s household. This is a romance with a commendably dark streak. Diana and Teodoro are no star-crossed young lovers, in fact both characters are fickle, indecisive and cunning; both are quite capable of cruelty as they pursue their passion.
Suspecting Diana’s feelings for him, Teodoro is quick to cast aside Marcela who, understandably, is not best pleased. Nor are Diana’s current suitors, the pompous Federico and Rodrigo; when they discover where Diana’s affections really lie, they soon hatch a scheme to dispose of Teodoro. Lovers are betrayed and increasingly elaborate ploys are concocted as the play heads towards its gleefully amoral conclusion. De Vega’s plot twists and turns constantly as events ascend into glorious farce. Even though the premise of The Dog in the Manger is far from original, the inventive, exciting manner in which the various threads are handled remains a pleasure to watch.
Rebecca Johnson does a marvellous job as Diana, the wilful, volatile Countess, making her sympathetic despite her inconsistencies and Joseph Millson isn’t far behind as Teodoro, though you do feel like sometimes giving him a shake and telling him to make his mind up. And you really can’t ever fully forgive him for his harsh treatment of Marcela, denting the comedy somewhat. The other members of the company are of a similar standard, especially Simon Trinder, who gives an excellent, energetic performance as Teodoro’s loyal manservant.
Lope de Vega’s best known comedy is presented in a fluid, modernised translation by David Johnston, though a couple of liberties appear to have been taken with the text for humour value, particularly in Trinder’s scenes. And Lawrence Boswell, an expert on the plays of this period, directs with expected skill, efficiently juggling the numerous plot strands and successfully setting up the play’s numerous comic scenarios. Es Devlin’s simple, shimmering set adds another layer of quality to what is an already classy production.
Tucked away on the embankment the surprisingly intimate Playhouse has always felt like something of a Theatreland outsider, and it would be a real shame if audiences missed out as a result. The Dog In The Manger is an unexpected treasure and well worth seeking out.