The Globe and Mail's Michael Posner begins a six-part series this Saturday that will take us through the process of producing Fuente Ovejuna for the 2008 Stratford Shakespeare Festival season.
"Today, we look at how Fuente Ovejuna arrived on the festival playbill; and at director [Laurence] Boswell.
"The three-act tragicomedy stars Sara Topham, Scott Wentworth, Jonathan Goad and James Blendick, and opens June 27 at the Tom Patterson Theatre. The play is based on what is said to be a genuine historical event: the 15th-century rebellion, by a group of Spaniards from a village called Fuente Ovejuna, against the tyranny of a brutal military overlord.
"They resolved to murder him – and did. When court officials sent an investigative team to determine whodunit, the village presented a solid communal front, refusing to identify those responsible and repeatedly saying 'Fuente Ovejuna did it.' No one was subsequently charged with the crime.
"So, the moral questions are central – although the morality comes wrapped in a play with some broad comedy and music; so much, in fact, that the production will have a small orchestra playing strings and horns. In Lope's world, as in ours, dark and light co-exist.
"Affable and gregarious, Boswell, 48, has the distinction of having directed Madonna in David Williamson's Up for Grabs and Jake Gyllenhaal and Matt Damon in Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth on London stages in the same year. That isn't why he's here, of course. He's here because his real métier is the classics, and he's something of a Lope maven. Not that there's a ton of competition.
"Stratford's general director, Antoni Cimolino, had seen Spanish Golden Age plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company some seasons ago, and later mused publicly that it would be a good idea for Stratford to eventually mount some of them. A friend of Boswell's wrote to Cimolino suggesting Boswell would make an ideal director. In turn, Cimolino sounded out Boswell about his interest in directing at Stratford, specifically Fuente Ovejuna. He immediately said yes.
"Raised in Coventry, the son of a car-factory worker, Boswell started out as an actor, making his first appearance onstage as a ventriloquist's dummy at the age of 10. Happy in the limelight – 'I was a bit of a show-off then' – he was auditioning for London acting schools when a local director suggested he might be better suited to directing. 'You're always analyzing things, he told me. You seem more interested in the play than the parts.'
"Taking that advice, Boswell went off to the University of Manchester, where he was a classmate of novelist and playwright Ben ( We Will Rock You) Elton. In his third week there, for an assignment, Boswell stumbled upon Fuente Ovejuna. He had never heard of the play, and started reading. The next term, he staged Lope's The Dog in the Manger, winning a national student competition.
"Some years later, he made the daring decision to stage two seasons of plays from the Spanish Golden Age – works not only by Lope de Vega, but by Tirso de Molina and Pedro Calderon de la Barca. Seven were British premieres. That was during his tenure at the Gate Theatre, a 100-seat room-above-a-pub fringe venue in Notting Hill. Amazingly (certainly to him), the Gate won an Olivier Award for special achievement. Later, he mounted several more such plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he became an associate director.
"Working with academic colleagues, Boswell produced what he calls new versions of the original works – scrupulously faithful to the storyline and the spirit of the text, but liberal in updating the language. He has now completed almost a dozen of them. His treatment of Fuente Ovejuna, for example – done expressly for Stratford – contains such phrases as 'information overload' and 'Come on, relax.'
"'I feel I have to honour Lope as if he were both a 17th-century and a 21st-century playwright,' Boswell explained a few weeks ago, over a post-rehearsal beer and burger in Stratford. 'I try to be completely loyal to what he's talking about, but sometimes that might need a new form of language. In the case of "information overload," we have computer technology. But he was talking about printing, and felt exactly the same – that people were being overwhelmed with information in books and pamphlets.'
"What appeals to him about these plays? 'In part, their novelty. People don't know them, so it's exciting to invent ways of staging them. There's a real experimental, pioneering, new-territory kind of feel. Plus, if you play Hamlet, you're bound to be compared to everyone from Ian McKellen to [legendary 18th-century actor David] Garrick. You can't win . . .
"And with Lope, there's a sensuality and emotion there. I'm very emotional. My grandfather was Italian, so Lope connects with my taste and my temperament. The plays are very Mediterranean. I identify with that. He's a really sophisticated storyteller who wants to take on big themes, and make them entertaining. He's like John Ford and Howard Hawks were in cinema – consummately commercial, but dealing with serious issues."
"Throughout Lope's career, his great rival was Cervantes, who called him 'the monster of nature,' not only because of his productivity, but because he effectively created genres and verse forms. 'The entire Spanish industry became based on his structures,' says Boswell. 'Always three acts. Always the same character archetypes, derived from Italian commedia. Always a clown. Always a first lady and a second lady. Always an older man who's a baddie or a father. But, unlike Shakespeare, he wasn't involved in producing the plays. He wrote them, got paid a fee, and then walked away.'
"When Cimolino offered him the assignment at Stratford, Boswell recalls, 'I said, How many actors can you give me? He said, Twenty-nine. I said, Okay! Canada's very lucky to have a theatre with enough resources to do it.'
"Boswell promptly started the process of finding the words that would modernize the text. He came over last summer to see some productions; and returned in the fall to cast the show, impressed by the range of talent available. He counted himself blessed to have garnered some of the company's most distinguished names: In addition to Topham, Blendick, Wentworth and Goad, there's Seana McKenna, Geraint Wyn Davies, Stephen Russell, David W. Keeley and Nigel Shawn Williams. 'There's a real spirit of the ensemble here,' says Boswell, 'and a tradition of continuity.'
"As it turns out, Boswell had a personal connection to Stratford. He's been married for 20 years to Sara Thomas, daughter of the late Powys Thomas, a stalwart at the festival for many years and a founder of Canada's National Theatre School. The couple met in a university corridor on their first day at Manchester. Once a successful actress, she's now a registered family therapist.
"One possible logistical hiccup to the Stratford assignment was Boswell's commitment to his 11-year-old son's soccer team, the Dulwich Devils, which he coaches in south London. In the end, Boswell handed off coaching duties to an associate. But the team is in the finals, and so the director is 'flying home Friday, May 9, arriving Saturday morning, training that day, coaching the game on Sunday, and immediately driving to Heathrow to catch the Sunday-night flight back. I just couldn't live with myself if I wasn't there.' His son is named Zinzan (nicknamed Zinny), in honour of New Zealand rugby legend Zinzan Brooke. His daughter, Lottie, is 19.
"In the months since his appointment, Boswell has engaged in extended e-mail conversations with, among many others, his designer, Peter Hartwell, who lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.; and his composer, Edward Henderson (younger brother of Chilliwack's Bill), who lives in Vancouver.
"Boswell considers directing a very social activity, one that requires him 'to be the servant of everyone else, finding ways to help them perfect their talents. But I also find I need some solitude, so the writing part gives me that. If I spend a whole year directing, by the end of it, I'm a hollowed form.' In the rehearsal hall, he engages actively, moving around, usually in his socks.
His experience working with American celebrities like Madonna, who demanded a complete rewrite of the Williamson play, as well as Gyllenhall and Damon, was instructive. All the productions were sold out, based on star power alone. But for Boswell, the experience was an object lesson in how the culture assigns value.
"'So there we are in rehearsal,' he recalls, 'and of course they aren't theatre actors. They can't really act. They need my help for everything: what to do with their hands, how to speak, how to stand, how to breathe . . . They are totally dependent on me . . . And then we leave the building, and the paparazzi and the fans are waiting outside and we all go out together, and suddenly I am nothing. I am completely, I mean completely, invisible.'
"So Boswell nurtures no illusion that Stratford audiences will be coming to see de Vega because of his work or reputation. Still, he says he would be very surprised if they don't respond as favourably to the Spanish Golden Age as British theatregoers have. He has now directed 11 of these plays in total; all have been critical and box-office hits.
"Confident, but not cocky.
"'I'll call it a success if I'm invited back next year, and the year after, and have done three,' he says, ordering another beer. 'And then we can take them around and show off the talents of the company. But first things first. This play has to prove itself. And I have to prove myself.'"