Review by Melinda Haunton
Sometimes it’s good to have no clue. A friend once took me to see Medea, without knowing how the story ended. Her horrified gasps made a myth I’d done at school come back to life. Similarly, knowing sorely little of Spanish theatre, and nothing whatsoever about Ay Carmela! did me a great service with this production – of what, some hasty post-show cribbing tells me is a famous, internationally renowned play, not to mention a successful film. I knew nothing in advance, and this production hit me like a truck. In a good way.
The Spanish-focused Cervantes Theatre is running two versions of Ay Carmela!, in Spanish and English language, with different casts but a shared production. I’m qualified only to come to the English, which means a translation of José Sanchez Sinisterra’s original text, and I suspect a little harder work to engage an anglophone audience in the play’s Spanish Civil War setting. But after a little educational business with archive newsreel and the flag of the vanquished Republican state, the production settles into vivid life.
The two members of the English-language cast have to hold the stage for a generous two hours, as the unfortunate Paulino (Ivanhoe Norona) and Carmela (Madalena Alberto), low-grade artistes who have over battle lines and forced to perform for an unseen audience of Nationalist soldiers. Their props are still behind the Republican lines, dancer Carmela is wearing a too-big dress apparently made out of your grandmother’s nightmare curtains, and Paulino’s losing his voice from stress.
Norona and Alberto embody the deep contrast between the snuffly, half-baked Paulino, fearfully complying with his new Fascist overlords, and the magnificent Carmela, swaggering and flirting with pride in her work. Alberto fills this showstopping part to the maximum, inhabiting the spotlight whenever she’s on stage. As the duo’s fictional performance staggers to a disastrous climax, her building distress about matters of more significance than fluffed cues shows how some people – or at least this remarkable woman – can grasp courage to take a magnificent final stand. Those of us who are quavering Paulinos at heart can only applaud.
Paula Paz’s direction ensures sharp changes of mood and time, with the play’s multiple flashbacks, clearly signaled and no risk of audience confusion. The production appears stripped down, with the exception of intensive, complex lighting effects, which do a lot to create an unearthly or super-theatrical feel when the play demands it (kudos to Nigel Lewis, lighting director). I obviously don’t know the original text, but John London’s translation felt strong, with some telling lines. Not to mention the dire skit which somehow provides Carmela’s apotheosis, starting from the unbeatably risible setup of a visit to Doctor Feel-Me-Up.
I don’t want to spoil the play’s central conceit for those who still have my previous state of blissful unknowing, but from the outset, it’s evidently about more than theatrical mishaps. We are set for tragedy from the very first words of dialogue, and the play deals deeply with war, death, collaboration and the inexorability of loss. It’s a tribute to both playwright and this production that there are so many laughs along the way and that the outcome is triumphant.
Ay Carmela! runs until 13 October, with the Spanish-language production Mon-Wed, English-language Thurs-Sat. Tickets at www.cervantestheatre.com, £25.