This 17th century Spanish drama from Tirso de Molina is brought to new life by NowNow Theatre in its first English language performance at the Keble O’Reilly. With effortless shifts from farcical plot twists and wry innuendo, to sobering reflections on the expectations of gender in society, Jealous of Herself is an enjoyable and thought-provoking production.
Although the twists and turns of the play’s plot create the opportunity for a cavalcade of humour, this production does not ignore that the source of these complications is a projection of male fantasy. While Finlay Stroud’s Melchor may embody the charm and perform the poetic compliments of a traditional romantic male lead, the darker edge to his blithe assumptions of beauty being the “primary concern” and his idealised preference of the imagined ‘Countess’ over the real woman behind the veil is acknowledged in the play’s more sombre moments, especially the incredible ending. The focal point of the comedy, his infatuation with a hand, becomes the cause of several characters’ anguish.
The music, composed by Alice Boyd, helps with the seamless nuances of tone as the interludes of performances by the ensemble (Boyd, Anushka Chakravarti, Cara Pacitti, Ell Potter and James Tibbles) are in turns enchanting, ominous and bittersweet. The choreography, by Emmy Everest-Phillips, is best displayed in a pas de deux between Chakravarti and Tibbles that emphasises both lyricism and aggression, as the two dancers portray power dynamics through energetic contemporary dance.
The rest of the main cast all have their moments to shine as well- all of the actors share an ease with the language and comedy that enchants and thoroughly involves the audience. Joe Peden carries a lot of the comedic dialogue (as well as literally carrying the male lead in one moment of slapstick) as the servant Ventura, who has a baser but more accurate view of the world than Melchor, and dryly comments on the play’s events to the audience directly. Peden appears an entirely modern presence in the play despite the occasionally archaic language, and his fast-paced chemistry with Stroud’s Melchor is outstanding. The heroine’s father (Tobias Sims) is appropriately and comically unaware of the goings-on, her brother (Rory Grant) entirely artless in his admiration for his neighbour’s sister and in any ill-will towards Melchor, and the neighbour Sebastian (Ali Porteous) believably infatuated with the heroine Magdalena. The maid Quinones (Emily Bell) develops from a staid disapproving figure next to Magdalena into a fun innuendo-spouting instigator of chaos herself, and Sebastian’s sister Angela (Kate Weir) is a superbly-acted figure of humour who becomes another Countess in the increasingly complex web of illusion.
There is a reason the play begins and ends with a song to Magdalena, however, and most of the poignancy of the play’s twists stems from Rebecca Hamilton’s heroine, who is by turns self-castigating, calculating, petulant, witty and tragic. Unlike Melchor, Magdalena is conscious of her own actions and the way she has “split herself into two”, both to trick and to fit into the desires of this male character; Hamilton’s performance is ultimately the most complex in the play because of that self-awareness. Unusually for the expectations of 17th century Spain, she is a fully-realised intelligent female character: imbuing Melchor’s reduction of her to a white hand with even more tragic irony.
Even without analysing the gender politics, the simple black-and-white stage design and costumes will evoke the binary conformity that the play addresses (the neon ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gents’ signs also convey this, but invite the audience to categorise themselves). The beautiful, haunting music of the final scene will stay with you long after the play ends- and the hilarious scenarios and dialogue guarantee that even if the play’s more intricate explorations do not resonate with you as they did with me, you will be thoroughly entertained. Open yourself up to the play’s subtleties, however, and you’ll experience far more than merely an excellent comedy.