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 The Theatreguide.London Review

House of Desires
Royal Shakespeare Company      Stratford 2004; Playhouse Theatre Spring 2005

Here's something you don't see every day - a sex farce written by a Mexican nun in 1683.

And although the Royal Shakespeare Company has to strain a bit to make it work, it turns out to be, if not quite a laugh-a-minute romp, then close enough to be thoroughly enjoyable.

Part of a Spanish Golden Age season the RSC ran in Stratford in 2004 and brings to London in 2005, this comedy by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz has a plot complicated enough for any Ray Cooney Farce.

To win the beautiful Dona Leonor, Don Pedro arranges a fake kidnapping, bringing her to the home of his sister Dona Ana so he can then pretend to save her. Leonor actually loves Don Carlos but, unfortunately, so does Dona Ana.

Factor in Ana's old lover Don Juan, who is still chasing her; Leonor's father, who is determined that somebody somewhere is going to make an honest woman of his daughter; a typical wily maid; and a manservant who, for reasons that make sense at the time, puts on a dress and is mistaken by just about every man in the cast for just about every woman in the cast.

Well, you get the idea. Though it takes a while to set up all this confusion, eventually every single conversation between any two parties is at cross purposes.

Either they're talking about two different women (or men) without realising it, or one is trying to make peace while the other thinks he's being insulted, or someone is telling a secret to exactly the wrong listener.

Meanwhile, people are rushing about trying to find or avoid each other, the men are constantly pontificating about their honour, all the plots and counterplots get in each other's way, and there are two farcical scenes in Peter Shaffer-style dark - i.e., with the stage fully lit so we can see the characters groping about in what is blackness to them.

As I said, it's a bit slow starting, and for much of the first half director Nancy Meckler gives the impression of not trusting the material, having her actors either exaggerate the text's operatic passions and rhetorical flourishes to the edge of camping them up, or signify an ironic distance from their characters with a wink or grimace.

Even the more sure fire material, like the scenes in the dark and the servant's dressing up as a woman, are milked a little too hard and long, suggesting a director afraid that the play's comedy can't stand on its own.

But those are really the only objections one can make - that the farce is slow to get going, and that director and cast strain a little too hard at keeping it going.

Because the play eventually is very funny, and text and directorial style eventually find each other, and you do laugh a lot.

Farce of this sort requires wafer-thin characters, and successful acting consists precisely in defining them instantly and then keeping them at that simple level without complexities that would spoil the fun.

So, for example, Rebecca Johnson plays Dona Leonor like Alfred Hitchcock's Mcguffin, the thing everybody's after that has no real identity in itself (and playing a desirable blank isn't easy). 

Special honours to Joseph Millson's stalwart-but-not-too-bright Don Carlos, William Buckhurst's totally-out-of-his-depth Don Pedro, and the scene-stealing Simon Trinder as the servant in drag, giving a masterclass in squeezing every last laugh out of a situation.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  House Of Desires - RSC at Playhouse Theatre 2005
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