“The Love of Don Perlimplín and Belisa in the Garden” at Cervantes Theatre

Neil Dowden in south London
12 November 2023

The plays of Federico García Lorca are regularly staged in the UK, but they are almost always one of his great rural trilogy of Blood Wedding, Yerma, or The House of Bernarda Alba, while their distinctively Spanish poetry and passion struggle to flourish in our colder northern soil. But now his lesser-known work The Love of Don Perlimplín and Belisa in the Garden is being produced at the Cervantes Theatre in Southwark, London’s first venue (opened in 2016) dedicated to showcasing Spanish and Latin American plays.

Sometimes shows here are performed in Spanish and sometimes in English – but uniquely on this occasion, the same play is performed first in Spanish with English surtitles, and then in English (skilfully translated by Caridad Svich). This is not just doing it again in another language to broaden the appeal, however. The short drama is given two contrasting stagings played by predominantly different casts – with the second acting as a distorted mirror image or deconstruction of the first – that shed new light on Lorca’s elusive dramatic genius.

Written in 1926 but not premiered until 1933, Amor de Don Perlimplín con Belisa en su Jardín is a dreamlike fable that mixes farce with tragedy, and the lyrical with the erotic. The elderly Don Perlimplín has remained a bachelor all his life, but is convinced by his housekeeper Marcolfa to marry a young woman so that he will have someone to look after him when she no longer can. His neighbour – with her eye on his considerable wealth – offers her beautiful teenage daughter Belisa. But the wedding night proves a disaster as though by now Perlimplín is unexpectedly in love with Belisa, her desires turn towards other, younger lovers. And then she falls for a mysterious red-caped man who sends her romantic letters.

Lorca subtly counterbalances themes of age and youth, spirit and body, truth and illusion in a beguiling romance that has an intriguingly surreal symbolism. There’s a hint of Cyrano de Bergerac in the tragicomic identity deception where true love is only revealed belatedly at the death. The more folkloric aspects of the original drama are played down here, including the sensible omission of the two duende (or sprites) who are part-narrators.

This enterprising production by Paula Paz (co-founder and co-artistic director of Cervantes Theatre) is based on the illuminating idea of presenting two versions of the play, with the more traditional Spanish one set in the eighteenth century while the English one takes place today (with mobile phone messages replacing epistles). Although the master/servant hierarchy and arranged marriage sit rather awkwardly in the latter’s contemporary society, Paz has cleverly substituted a young man for the girl that Perlimplín falls in love with, which is in keeping with the play’s motif of frustrated desire (he may be male just in Perlimplín’s imagination) as well as referencing Lorca’s own homosexuality.

Well suited to this intimate theatre space with the audience seated on three sides, this is a game of two halves that lasts as long as a football (or maybe rugby) match – but without a break. To aid fluid movement there isn’t a set, with designer Alejandro Andújar suggesting the two different periods through clothing style, while a slight white facial make-up gives the first half an added sense of artifice. Sammy Emmins’s expressionist lighting reinforces the play’s fleeting ambivalence, and Lex Kosanke’s classical-sounding music is speeded up to more of a club beat in the second half.

Perlimplín is played first with unworldly pathos by Juan Carlos Talavera and then with naive yearning by Paul Rider. Maggie García suggests Belisa’s awakening sensuality in the first half, then returns silently in the second half to alternate the role with a softly spoken, graceful Alex Perez. Maite Jiménez’s maternal Marcolfa who dresses her childlike master is succeeded by Mary Conlon who speaks to Perlimplín on a more equal footing. And Montserrat Roig doubles as Belisa’s Mother in an amusingly ingratiatory performance.

It will be interesting to see if Lorca’s masterpiece The House of Bernarda Alba is staged in an equally revelatory way at the National Theatre later this month.