Being acquainted with Calixto Bieito’ s production of Don Giovanni from the Teatro del Liceu on video, I thought it would be interesting to sample the controversial director in his own field and got a ticket to his adaptation of chivalric novel Tirant lo blanc, written in the XVth Century by Joanot Martorell. Although this book is to Catalan language what Dante’s Divina Commedia is to Italian, it is primarily known abroad as Don Quixote’s favourite book.
My first and foremost curiosity was to know how any director would adapt this sort of book into a theatrical play, given the amount of battle scenes and other large-scale events. It came to mind a very creative production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in Rio, in which war scenes were portrayed as American football matches and Greek heroes were hailed by cheerleaders (I swear it was not stupid as this sounds), but Bieito seemed to focus on different aspects of the work.
As I understood it, his adaptation and staging centered in the nodal point of chivalric love, to which death and sex converged in an unprecedented and probably never repeated way. Although the main events in the book are clearly represented in the play, someone who doesn’ t know the story would have some trouble to follow the plot (but this seems to be a general rule in Regietheater), since all aspects are seen through the lenses of this repressed sexuality conveyed to violence and religion.
Reading these lines, you would probably think that there was nothing gruesome portrayed on stage, but that would not be the case. In order to house this production, Teatre Romea had to be adapted. The proscenium stage was arranged in order to fit a red catwalk along which the audience would be seated. This configuration not only brings the action close to the audience, but also the audience into the drama. The main scene of the play is a combo of a battle and wedding, both of them portrayed with the help of a kitchen. To the battle part of the scene, Valencia’ s tomatina was shown on video, while the actors stripped, threw the blood of a rabit on each other, shouted at each other etc. I reckon it was stage stage blood, but there were two actual dead peeled rabbits (as in Polanski’ s Repulsion) actually dripping. In this scene, those seated by the catwalk were actually terrified that some of this food would be thrown on them! When the battle is over, there is time to party and to let go a bit of the tension, so why not a wedding? The ceremony is a fashion show featuring all characters while Madonna’ s music poured from the speakers and paella and wine were served to the audience. If you guessed few of those treated to a plate and a glass ventured to taste it after seeing those dead rabbits and those people covered in blood, you’re right. Later on, in a scene when Tirant baptises thousands of heathens, one actor in underwear covered with mud sprinkled water around to the desperation of these people (if you wonder why I tell this in such a detached way, the reason is that my seat was in the third level, from where I could safely see everything from above – now I see why the nice lady at the box office offered me this place on seeing I was a tourist).
(You might wonder how I could make through a play staged in Catalan without supertitles. Actually, if you know some Spanish and some French, you can more or less follow a Catalan dialogue. The nouns are always easy to understand, the verbs are a different story… In any case, I could get the general sense of most dialogues and even more specifically when a particular actor had outstandingly good diction, but the previous knowledge of the plot was essential to the whole venture.)
If you ask me what was my final impression on this play, well, I must say I found it worth the visit for a change. Bieito’ s insight to the chivalric novel is genuinely thought-provoking and, although one feels that the creative team and the actors are heaving far more fun than the audience (another general rule of Regietheater), differently from similar plays in this genre, you would actually laugh in the comedy passages, understand most of the ironies and references and even get touched in the most lyric moments. However, the show’ s main feature is undeniably the outstanding cast. These people are amazingly talented. For example, Alicia Ferrer (playing the part of the “blind organist”) not only acts, but plays the soundtrack in the organ while singing with a perfectly trained voice fiendishly dissonant intervals, in which she was joined by the equally adept Begona Alberdi, Alina Furman and Josep Ferrer. And when I mean the soundtrack was difficult – I mean having these people produce very high notes in intervals of a minor second, to start with. But I don’ t mean that these people can only sing – they perform some very acrobatic and verbose scenes with amazing accuracy. Most directors wouldn’ t trust their casts with actual knives cutting vegetable while singing on stage (at least, most insurances company would NOT cover that!).