In Lope de Vega’s story of communal uprising against tyranny, it falls to women to agitate for change and face the backlash.
It is the poor and powerless who pay with their blood and broken bodies for societal paradigm shifts that benefit everyone.
Written circa 1612 and based on an historical incident in 1476, Fuenteovejuna (“well of sheep”, the name of its Spanish village setting) is nothing if not evergreen.
Adapted here by Sydney theatre maker Angus Evans (who also directs), de Vega’s story depicts a communal uprising against a thuggish overlord and his predatory lackeys. The political backstory is complex (issues of dynastic rule and a dispute over who should rule over the kingdom of Castile) and the drama sometimes circuitous as a result. The urgency in Fuente Ovejuna! lies in the actions of a young woman, Laurencia, who refuses to submit to the sexual demands of the Commander who rules the village with an iron hand and a lascivious eye.
Can Laurencia persuade the men of the village – long accustomed to accommodating the demands of power – to back her?
Moreover, can all withstand the inevitable and terrible retribution?
Seasoned with laconic Australian humour and attitude, Evans’ plain-speaking translation unobtrusively retains elements of de Vega’s verse. The staging, which features a cast of 12 supported by two musicians providing a near constant underscore, is delivered with rousing street theatre energy – an impression enhanced by the use of big-headed puppets to portray the ruling class. It feels like a production that could play in an outdoor setting without much adjustment.
At two hours 40 it’s a substantial commitment for audiences becoming used to the post-pandemic 80 minutes in-and-out but the storytelling is lively, clear and very much an ensemble effort from James Bean, Tristan Black (very funny as villager Mengo), Julia Christensen, Steve Corner (menacing as the king’s inquisitor), Shayne de Groot, Dominique de Marco, Lucinda Howes (excellent as Laurencia), Suzann James, Martin Quinn, Davey Seagle, Idam Sondhi and Madeleine Withington.
In de Vega’s original, the peasants are spared by a benign king concerned for their welfare. Evans’ version ends on a more realistic note. The oppressed seldom get their deus ex machina moment. The struggle never ends.