Classical Theatre in Another Strange Land

As an art form conceived around the act of the encounter, physical proximity, conviviality, and ritual, theatre has seen its very foundations shaken over the last six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here in Spain, theatres were forced to cease their functions on 14 March 2020, when President Pedro Sánchez decreed a state of emergency and stated that public institutions—theatres among them—must suspend all hiring initiatives.

Nonetheless, in record time and at a global level, many companies have sought outlets to continue their artistic activities. And, given their resources, these companies have tried to maintain their artistic missions. How these theatre professionals have shifted is admirable, and as I’ve taken in their work I’ve noted the stoic fighting spirit with which they have defended their art. From the very beginning of this pandemic, they have looked forward and embraced the possibilities the crisis has allowed them to discover.

New dramatic initiatives carried out in recent months have allowed these artists to explore the limits placed around theatre during the pandemic—which has led Zoom theatre or distanced theatre—to the point that a debate has begun about the nature of theatre itself. Adapting classical theatre for the new reality of the digital world is a particularly sensitive issue, as pre-modern and early modern theatre, whether we like it or not, remains attached to the weight of tradition. If some purists already think it is blasphemy not to do the classics in the traditional way, adding a digital framework might be considered defacement.

We cannot exclude early modern theatre Hispanic from this debate—the unique and prolific body of plays lead by writers such as Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, Calderón de la Barca, Ana Caro, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; on the contrary, I would place it at the very center, as it is a marker of Hispanic culture and its theatre history. As such, we might ask, “How have the companies dedicated to classical theatre and even the plays themselves absorbed the artistic shock brought on by the pandemic?” Risking generalization, I am convinced the new take on theatre that has emerged under confinement minimizes the gap that separates classical from contemporary theatre.

three actors onstage

En Otro Reino Extraño. Photo by Sergio Parra.

The Arcadia Revisited

This preamble leads me to En otro reino extraño (In Another Strange Land), a play “born from the pandemic” as director David Boceta observes, which situates excerpts from Lope de Vega’s plays and poems within a contemporary digital framework and weaves in a twenty-first-century perspective and reactions from the actors staging the works. Between April and May 2020, Boceta directed this visionary experiment as the result of a commission from Lluís Homar, the director of the Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico (National Company of Classical Theatre, CNTC)—an institution dependent on the Ministry of Culture and Sports, which has functioned as a pillar in the performance and dissemination of seventeenth-century Spanish theatre since 1986.

The conditions given to Boceta were the following:

  • The audiovisual piece had to be about forty-five minutes long, directed and produced during confinement, without any physical contact.
  • The piece had to deal with de Vega’s texts about love.
  • The actors had to be part of the younger repertoire of the CNTC.
  • The piece had to be created and rehearsed in five weeks, and Boceta could have three artistic collaborators; he chose dramaturg Luis Sorolla, video artist Álvaro Luna, and musical director/sound designer Antonio de Cos.

Otherwise, Boceta had full freedom with the digital staging. Aside from the thoroughly relatable thematic of love, the tour de force of his audiovisual montage was its rearticulation and contextualization of the arcadia.

In classical art, the arcadia is represented by a natural idyllic setting where, say, a group of shepherds may take refuge from reality and the everyday to share their love sorrows with one another. With Boceta’s digital recreation of the arcadia, the actors took the audience on a self-reflective journey that lead us to question and deconstruct traditional narratives of love, gender, and sexuality propagated by early modern theatre; in so doing, the audience sought refuge from reality not in idyllic repose but through confronting reality head-on. Throughout this work, we discovered how love, gender, and sexuality—all rooted in a utopian vision of the arcadia—had begun to acquire new meanings for the actors due to the pandemic’s imposed confinement. It is no coincidence that the “cottagecore” aesthetic—a hauntological return to the pastoral or the wholesome—has picked up so quickly in pop culture during this pandemic.

The actors took the audience on a self-reflective journey that lead us to question and deconstruct traditional narratives of love, gender, and sexuality propagated by early modern theatre.

Tales from Dystopia

En otro reino extraño is a polyphonic work composed of scenes from plays; snippets of informal conversations between the actors in Zoom chats; poems transmogrified into electrocumbia, punk, and pop songs; and video montage. We witnessed how the concept of “otherness”—individual and social otherness, i.e. not fitting within the traditional norms of love, identity, and even space—gradually acquired a new meaning. This piece and the whole artistic team filled de Vega’s classical texts with an effortless pared-down immediacy; “otherness” is made salient by the actors’ sensitivities in the here and now.

Before embarking on this project, Boceta and Sorolla asked the cast if it made any sense at all to do a play about love in the circumstances in which they were living. For most of the actors, this moment was undoubtedly ideal to engage in a reflection on this subject because of how confinement had been changing their perspectives—emotionally, ideologically, professionally—on everything they had taken for granted. Boceta was not interested in showing audiences protagonists embodied to perfection; rather, he encouraged his actors to find a way to move beyond the confines of their characters, to slip through the cracks of the monumental texts to reveal their own personal, lived identities, which audiences hardly get to see in traditional performances.

an actor onstage with a large projection behind them

En Otro Reino Extraño. Photo by Sergio Parra.

In Boceta’s 2020 adaptation, he successfully puts into question the role of the classical actor by openly displaying the struggle some of them go through when facing a monolithic conceptualization of how love and gender are defined in the works of the period. Francisco Trujillo, one of the actors, describes the conventional ending of early modern plays—multiple weddings—as “economies of love,” alluding to the strict heteronormative dynamics that do not fully connect with modern relationships. It is precisely for this reason that the dramaturgy of En otro reino extraño juxtaposes traditional love scenes, such as the sequence from the balcony in de Vega’s Castelvines y Monteses (Capulets and Montagues, c. 1606–12), the Spanish version of Romeo and Juliet, with dialogues from other plays that explore feelings of “friendship” with deep homoerotic tonality.

The selected scenes from de Vega’s La boda entre dos maridos (The Marriage Between Two Husbands, 1601) and La prueba de los ingenios (The Test of Wits, c. 1612–13) inserted into En otro reino extraño expose homoerotic desire that become even more visible as they are spliced into the traditional plot with its conventional ending. Something similar happens with the monologue from de Vega’s La vengadora de mujeres (The Avenger of Women, c. 1615–20), performed by Irene Serrano. This excerpt explores a self-proclaimed avenger, Laura, who denounces the restrictive roles reserved for women in society due to patriarchal prejudices and a lack of education at the time. Throughout the piece, actors and the protagonists speak equally from positions of non-conformity. Confounding periods and agency, actors and their characters confront each other face to face and establish a powerful dialogue between the past and the present about social entrapment.

The actors’ homes serve as their Zoom backgrounds, both for their informal conversations as well as for the scenes they perform. While there is something intimate about these everyday interiors that bring audience members closer to the actors, deep down we realize the performers are actors trapped without a stage. They dance in their living rooms, play guitar on their sofas, recite sonnets to their dogs, use the bathroom mirror to connect with themselves and the bathtub as a symbol of oppression. It is not until the end of the piece that we see the actors leave their homes—but only to face a greater emptiness: a nocturnal and deserted Madrid. The cityscape takes center stage at this point in the piece; the empty streets are defaced by solitude, like a dystopian space as Alejandro Amenábar imagined it in his 1997 science fiction movie Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes).

If this means we have had to rip apart classical texts to seek humanity and empathy in our desolation, then so be it, for how wondrous is the function of art when resuscitated to quell our modern nightmare.

Other Dramatic Realms

Thinking about the piece’s title, which in English is In Another Strange Land, we wonder: what is this “other” strange realm that unfolds within the piece? It might be the lifeless city or the carefully crafted homes each person has had to stage. But it could also be a new way to approach the classics. The artistic team of En otro reino extraño not only deconstructs and broadens the more traditional perception of classical theatre, but I would even say turns it into an entirely new aesthetic experience. The final product is consciously unfinished and reveals the feelings of the actors just as much as those of the protagonists, and, in so doing, creating a genuine dialogue between the two.

Although the art of an actor consists in telling a story in the most convincing way possible, this piece reminds us there is also an individual who feels and breathes behind the mask. Traditionally, we audiences do not go to the theatre to plumb the depths of an actor’s true identity, nor are we interested in their ideas or feelings during the performance, and even less in their relation to classical theatre. What interests us is listening to the speeches that have carved an honorific place in world literature. However, the isolation we have experienced globally over the last months has shown us that we need theatre—no matter how it’s delivered—more than ever. Theatre that is lively, that is vulnerable, that creates community by actively connecting the audience with the artists. If this means we have had to rip apart classical texts to seek humanity and empathy in our desolation, then so be it, for how wondrous is the function of art when resuscitated to quell our modern nightmare.

After the digital version of En otro reino extraño closed, Boceta had the opportunity to adapt it for the stage, which opened at the Festival de Teatro Clásico de Almagro (Almagro International Classical Theatre Festival) on 14 July 2020. The director decided not to further refine the piece when it went live and took the risk to faithfully reconstruct its “undone essence” to transmit to the audience the crucial importance of process, spontaneity, and sincerity in the original piece. The play follows the same fragmented structure as the digital montage and the actors engage directly with the public, sometimes remembering some of the conversations they had in Zoom and other times reaching out to the audience, taking the time to sit on stage and asking them how they are doing.

There are a great deal of modernized versions of Spanish classical theatre today, and diminishing the gap between the past and the present is something our contemporary directors must continue to explore in depth. En otro reino extraño does just this. Since the pandemic, the classics seem to have been retooled to inspire hope in the most genuine way, by my estimation at least. Without cumbersome backdrops, studied costumes, or complex scenographies, Boceta has created a way for us to cross a bridge to a “new strange land,” a revisited arcadia, where Spanish early modern theatre—and its main representative, de Vega—becomes perhaps more real, more human, and more combative than it has ever been.

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Thank you Barbara!

I only wish the piece would have subtitles to get to a wider audience. It is so difficult to explain how rich is it!

Thank you for this wonderful account, Esther. The piece is so moving, and I'm glad people can still watch it.

I am struck by how the classics can ground the feelings so many share during the pandemic. They take the work beyond the solipsistic exploration of lockdown to a deeper dive into what it means to be human, in this case by exploring what love means.