Madness in Valencia is Lope de Vega’s riotous comedy of love and insanity. The canonical Spanish play follows what happens when two sane people are mistakenly incarcerated in a lunatic asylum. In the midst of the madness, they fall in love. The play transfers to the West End this month, following rave reviews at the White Bear Theatre. Contrary Life caught up with the director, Simon Evans, to find out more…
Madness in Valencia is a play that most people won’t have heard of, why did you decide to do it?
To be honest, the fact that most people won’t have heard of it is an enormous draw. In this country an audience comes to Shakespeare, so often, with an expectation based on their own substantial experience of him. The director Peter Brook even writes about seeing audience members mouthing along Shakespeare’s lines as his actors performed them.
But we are there at the beginning of an audience’s relationship with Madness in Valencia and potentially Lope de Vega. As a director, I get the chance to play a part in an audience’s future expectations and my cast can enjoy the wonderful challenge of playing Lope’s larger-than-life classical roles unencumbered by comparison.
I had the chance to perform the opening scene as a showcase piece a few years ago and the text struck me as incredibly thrilling from that first reading. Like Shakespeare, Lope is a great humanist and his canon offers us countless imaginative explorations of human behaviour. In Madness in Valencia, the exploration is of humanity in extreme situations and the result has so much potential for exciting theatre.
The play offers us an incredibly vibrant slice of absurdity, both incredibly funny and extremely moving. The freedom from familiarity empowers the whole company to enjoy the very act of storytelling, making the rehearsal process hugely free and the production propelled by energy and invention.
I find that freedom, and the finished result, absolutely exhilarating.
A lunatic asylum isn’t a conventional setting for a love story. Do the quirkier plays appeal to you?
Well it certainly increases the comic potential. The setting of Madness in Valencia is quirky, but my approach is always to look for the moments of simple humanity with which to associate, and the quirkier the setting, the more genuine those moments have to be.
We’ve been talking a lot about chaos in the rehearsal room, both in reference to the absolute anarchy in Lope’s asylum, but also the state of the characters dragged in there. Our lead lovers talk of “spinning”, “tumbling”, “falling” as they are snatched up and dumped unceremoniously within the walls of the madhouse. Yet chaos is also full of patterns, which every so often slot into place at exactly the right moment to afford even star-crossed lovers a moment’s peace.
Shakespeare put his lovers in fairy-filled forests, cross-dressed them and pitted them against fate. Lope throws his into an asylum. Both writers have such an incredible understanding of the nature of love that the quirky situations only serve as a backdrop to observations that we still connect with four hundred years later.
Erifila surrenders to Lope’s chaotic design, crying “I’ll be mad” and, by so doing, makes her entrance to this quirky setting where she and Floriano happen to meet for the first time, both believing the other to be mad. The quirky setting is also an insightful one, and allows Lope to illustrate the fine line between lovers and looneys! It’s an original “meet-cute” and a hilarious introduction to their relationship. After all, at its essence, this is a boy-meets-girl story.
With this in mind we have done some focused work on the affecting moments of stillness in the play and are greatly aided in this by David Johnston’s robust translation. Aside from the poetry, which David renders with staggering beauty, it is Lope’s interest in the human condition which is at the core of this text. Lope supplies us with moments of recognizable raw emotion, whose effects are heightened by the unconventional setting.
The play is transferring to the West End. Has this created any new challenges?
Of course. It has been an exhausting five months. We’re working on a grander scale, prompting us to increase production values, and I’ve been blown away by how much more work that has entailed. I’m shattered. But as we get closer to opening I get to see more and more of the results of the work we’ve put in and the excitement only spurs me on.
We are reworking scenes to play to an audience on three sides (rather than two at the White Bear) giving us with the opportunity to return to the script with a fresh perspective. The cast will be inhabiting their roles in more authentic costumes and an inventive new set has already sparked many discoveries in the rehearsal room.
However Trafalgar Studio 2 still has the friendly feel of a fringe venue, and we will be staunchly retaining the spirit of the original production. The joy of our performances at the White Bear was in introducing the audience to a company of actors who delight in playing together and allowing their infectious enjoyment to spread to the audience. We have always held this as our greatest achievement and it is too precious a commodity to risk.
In a recent write-up of The Rivals at the Southwark Playhouse, The Guardian’s Michael Billington remarked “we rely on the fringe to remind us of our dramatic heritage”. We can only hope to inspire a similar sentiment with our irreverent excavation of an oft-overlooked corner of Golden Age theatre.
As a director and producer I have two different takes on reviews.
As a producer I take them very seriously, aware as I am of the consequences of good or bad notices. Both my last two productions were top of Time Out’s Critic’s Choice list, and achieved sell out runs on the strength of their write-ups. In the case of Madness in Valencia, with no A-list celebrities in the cast or audience familiarity with the play or author, a few good reviews will be vital to encourage potential audiences to come to see it.
As a young director I confess I am not confident enough not to care a little what other people think, but I’m getting better. I’ve had glowing reviews for productions which I’ve felt didn’t deserve them, and horrible write-ups for shows I’ve felt deserved more, so a pinch of salt is certainly required.
Everyone working on Madness in Valencia has thrown themselves into the project with such joyous gusto and gumption that they deserve a captive audience. Reviews will help that, so while I’d like to take the high ground and claim complete indifference, I’d rather everyone entered into the spirit of it.
It’s the little show that could… so it’d be nice if it did.
Why did you set up Black and White Rainbow theatre company?
The company was originally formed to mount a programme of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We staged productions of The Bacchae and Dracula which were a beautiful parade of sumptuous physical theatre told with great passion and vigour. However as the project continued I became increasingly aware that the stories at the heart of both productions had been lost under the weight of aesthetic.
As a new director I’d fallen foul of theatre’s first principle. I took for granted an audiences’ familiarity with the classics, and misplaced the onus of the productions on showcasing original theatrical techniques and unique interpretations rather than trusting the story to speak for itself.
Over the course of another Edinburgh Fringe offering and shows at the ADC Theatre Cambridge, the Hen and Chickens and the Old Vic, I came to understand that timeless desire we all have to be lost in a good story. In May of 2009, Michael Kingsbury, the artistic director of the White Bear Theatre, offered us our first real opportunity to put what we’d learnt into practice.
It seemed to work, with two consecutive No. 1 Critic’s Choice shows, and our reputation became more concrete. That’s our remit now, we enjoy telling stories, offering our audiences the chance to discover over-looked classic works through performances driven by pace, imagination, energy and clarity.
“Who we are” changes according to the story we’re telling, that’s the way we like it. I didn’t necessarily set it up with this in mind but could not be happier with where we are now. No matter where we end up though, Black and White Rainbow are dynamic, authentic and heartfelt storytellers.
I hear you are a magician. Does this make you a popular guest at parties?
Well I hope I’m not invited to parties solely as the entertainment, but it’s been an incredibly useful skill to have.
I remember after directing one of the productions for the Old Vic 24 Hour Plays I was invited back to the Old Vic to discuss future projects. I was keen to seem astute and intellectual, so started waxing lyrical about a devised version of The Great Gatsby I was keen to develop. While my listeners nodded sagely, I could see I wasn’t exciting them so I changed my approach, almost mid-sentence, and began talking about an idea I had for a theatrical magic show. They bristled at once.
That meeting led to my being invited to perform a section of the show for Old Vic staff and Kevin Spacey, which led to my production of Pause to Wonder at the Hen and Chickens. More importantly it strengthened my relationship with the Old Vic. As a result of that affiliation we’ve been given access to the Old Vic main studio for our rehearsals, for which we’re very grateful. I cannot imagine a more hallowed place to be working.
Having said that, and for all the artistic steps I’ve made, I’m still invited to perform at the Old Vic fundraising events, so I guess I am just a “party guest conjuror” after all.
What will you be working on after Madness in Valencia?
Well after the challenges of the past six months I’m going to take an evening off, then I’ll be preparing to work as Assistant Director to Josie Rourke at the Bush Theatre on her upcoming production of Like a Fishbone.
After that Black and White Rainbow will be returning to the White Bear to mount our first season with three consecutive productions of innovative intimate performances of lost classics.
That said, we never anticipated transferring to the West End, and I quite like it here, so I remain open to suggestions.
Thanks for your time, it’s much appreciated. Good luck with the play.
Thank you. We’re all looking forward to it. See you there.
Madness in Valencia runs from 9th February to 6th March 2010 at Trafalgar Studios, Studio 2, London.
£: Mondays 17.50, Tuesdays- Saturdays 22.50 (concs & groups: 17.50 )
More info: Madness in Valencia