(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/21.)
This is the real deal: an unqualified masterpiece by Lope de Vega that, in Meredith Oakes's excellent new translation, forms part of Bath's Spanish Golden Age season. Since Lope's 1631 play deals with the guilt-wracked love between a young woman and her stepson, one is inevitably reminded of Euripides's Hippolytus and Racine's Phèdre; in its moral intricacy, however, Lope's play is the equal of its twin rivals – and indeed, in some ways, far better.
Lope's plot looks simple enough on the surface. The Duke of Ferrara, an ageing lech, decides to marry a well-born Mantuan beauty, Cassandra, and sends his bastard son, Federico, to collect his future bride. Although the young couple are instantly attracted, this is only the starting point for a play shot through with irony and ambiguity. Himself a womanising priest, Lope's ability to show how religion can act as a source of both erotic tension and silky self-justification is striking: Federico cries to Cassandra "I've lost God because of you", and the couple go through agonies of spiritual doubt before they even kiss. But the philandering Duke, who returns from the Papal wars a changed man, also invokes God to execute what he sees as a fit punishment.