The Doctor of Honour 1989 (British Premiere)

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It benefits all the way from the sheer theatricality of a Cheek by Jowl treatmentThe Scotsman

Produced by Cheek by Jowl

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Cast
William HopeDon Pedro
Neil PearsonDon Henry
Nigel TerryDon Gutierre
Killian McKennaDon Arias / Ludovico
Ben OnwukweDon Diego
Michelle FairleyDona Mencia
Claire BenedictDona Leonar
Mark WilliamsCoquin
Sue DevaneyJacinta

Creatives
DirectorLindsay Posner
DesignerJulian McGowan
MovementGeraldine Stephenson
MusicStephen Warbeck
Lighting DesignerRick Fisher

1989

The title of Calderon's sensational 1635 thriller is not a reflection of the main character's social or academic status. Don Gutierre is a surgeon of his own honour, a psychopathic avenger of his wife's supposed adultery with the King's brother.

In an extraordinary climax, the innocent Dona Mencia is bled to death, Don Gutierre is vindicated by the King and the grievously wronged Dona Leonor is consigned to married life with the man who ruined her.

How much we owe Cheek by Jowl for presenting this British professional premiere playing at the Donmar Warehouse, Covent Garden until May 13, is underlined by the fact that Roy Campbell's superb translation (much better for instance than Adrian Mitchell's of Fuente Ovejuna at the National) has been sitting around for over 30 years. The text is both barbarous and supple and accurately conveys Calderon's rich metrical variety.

This is the first Cheek by Jowl production not to be directed and designed by the founders Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod. Lindsay Posner has done a fine job activating the glittering nastiness of the piece though I feel the permanent presence on upstage seating of the cast of nine smacks more of scenic gimmickry than of interpretative necessity.

The design of Julian McGowan is a black and white chequers board with a lone stumpy tiled obelisk to signify a wall, a castle, and a place to plant the bloody hand of death. This play, on of three controversial honour tragedies is much obsessed not only with the Spanish Golden Age notion of honour, but also with liege loyalties, the property value of relationships in the home and the state, "Do you own this house?" asks the Prince of Dona Mencia, "No, but its owner owns me," she replies.

The cold exploitation of these ligatures, ranged against our deeper sympathetic promptings combines with the profundity of poetic expression to create fine drama. Nigel Terry gives one of his most austerely sinister performances as the cruel Don, while Michelle Fairley as his wife beautifully suggests how she might have kicked up her heels for Don Henry (Neil Pearson) had honour not forbidden her love.

A good cast includes a comically absolute monarch from William Hope, a wronged supplicant of resonant dignity by the richly talented Claire Benedict, and a marvellous Brummagem clown by Mark Williams. The costumes are rich and fine, the lighting (by Rick Fisher) a delicate essay in chiaroscuro. Only the physical, gestural scale, is wrong. The returns of intimacy are diminishing while the best of Cheek by Jowl is now exploding into larger arenas. Michael Coveney, Financial Times. 28 April 1989
I have just seen a masterpiece in Hemel Hempstead: Calderon's The Doctor of Honour (1629) given a fine, lucid production by Lindsay Posner for Cheek by Jowl. I discovered the play last year in a student production at the Drama Centre; and a second viewing confirms that it is both a devastating critique of Spanish honour code and a study in the wracking insanity of jealousy that makes Othello look tame.

Calderon's plot moves forwards with the swift excitement of a detective story. It starts with a prince falling from a horse. Recovering from the accident in a country house outside Seville he is confronted by a former lover, Mencia, now married to the devouringly possessive Gutierre.

The husband's suspicions are aroused and, in a scene of cruel ingenuity, he traps his wife in a darkened garden by pretending to be her would be lover.

Honour is the motor of virtually all Spanish drama. But Calderon, with mordant irony, shows how it turns in upon itself and leads to madness, hysteria and self torturing jealousy. Othello, believing his wife to be unfaithful, instantly demands the ocular proof.

Gutierre revealingly remarks that "men like me do not require to see," a line that indicates both the profound narcissism of the whole honour code and the depth of his fantasy. But what makes the play darkly disturbing is that Calderon shows how women subscribe to the very code that destroys them.

I have some minor reservations about the Cheek by Jowl production. I wish they had stuck to the title The Surgeon of Honour since that conveys the right hint of dissection. Though full of rich phrases (a dagger has a "fine, white effulgent tongue of steel") Roy Campbell's translation lacks the pith and pungency of the recent one by Gwynne Edwards. And while Julian McGowan's set has a cool clarity, it never suggests that Mencia is just as much a prisoner as the daughters in Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba.

But the greatest virtue of Lindsay Posner's production lies in its projection of the text and in its creation of a caste ridden, black-velvet Spanish world, undermined by rancid passion.

Nigel Terry also brilliantly shows Gutierre's decline from a bluff, hearty host into a mad obsessive figure: instead of making us hate the character, Mr Terry gives us access to his warped fantasies. Michelle Fairly also makes Mencia a figure of great pathos; a porcelain Veasquez beauty smashed and bloodied by the end of the play.

I have heard it suggested that the play is now dated because we cannot share the Spanish belief in honour. But that is to overlook several things; the intricate mastery of Calderon's spider web plotting, the fact that he is questioning honour rather than endorsing it and the simple truth that pride and possessiveness are as far from being banished as they ever were. In short, it is still a relevant masterpiece. Michael Billington, The Guardian. 17 March 1989