UK theatre fuels passion for Spanish
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London (AFP) – “This Lorca is totally insane,” says the actress in Spanish, sparking laughter from a group of British teenagers at London’s Cervantes Theatre.
Artistic director Paula Paz, who co-founded the theater with actor and director Jorge de Juan, said Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca is a firm favorite in the UK.
From a humble corner of south London, the venue is helping to spark a growing interest in Spanish, which is now the most widely studied foreign language in the UK.
Built from the ground up in a former garage under railway arches, the theater opened in 2016 with Lorca’s 1933 tragedy ‘Bodas de Sangre’ (‘Blood Wedding’).
One of the highlights of the upcoming season is a seven-week performance of his final 1936 play, La Casa de Bernada Alba (The House of Bernada Alba).
Lorca – killed later than in the year during the Spanish Civil War – is not the only playwright to feature at the tiny 80-seat theater in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames.
Others include the 16th-century playwright Felix Lope de Vega, as well as lesser-known and emerging writers from Spain and Latin America.
These include “La Casa de los Espiritus” (“The House of Spirits”) by Chilean author Isabel Allende and “La Realidad” (“The Reality”) by Argentinian Denise Despeyroux.
To reach a wider audience, performances alternate between Spanish and English, although plays that alternate between the two languages have also been performed.
These include a bilingual performance of Cervantes’ farce “El Juez de los Divorcios” (“The Divorce Judge”) and Shakespeare’s monologues in 2016.
In September there was an elaborate in-house production based on Pablo Sorozabal’s operetta “Black, El Payaso” (“Black Clown”) from 1942.
The dialogues were in English and the songs in Spanish, all translated with digital subtitles.
Despite its name, the Cervantes Theater is independent of the Spanish language and culture authority, the Instituto Cervantes, from which it receives a small grant.
This month, Lorca’s lesser-known Retablillo de Don Cristobal (The Puppet Show of Don Cristobal) wowed students.
“I think it’s a nice way of looking at the language,” said Zack Fecher, 17, on a trip from Haberdashers’ Boys’ School in Elstree, just outside London.
“I’ve seen films in Spanish but this is the first play and you have to focus on the words and they speak very quickly.”
Ana Zamora, director of the theater company Nao d’Amores, which specializes in reviving lost plays, has been invited from Spain to present the production.
“You don’t have to beautify the lyrics to make them more accessible to foreign audiences,” she told AFP.
Audiences can see the similarities between the puppet Don Cristobal and the traditional English character Mr Punch, she said.
At the same time, it exudes “an intriguing touch of the exotic,” she added.
‘Nothing Like That’
For Paz, the “demand for quality” gives the theater its audience, which she describes as a mix of people who enjoy alternative theater, fans of Hispanic culture, and students of Spanish.
Students studying Spanish are becoming increasingly common in England. In 2019, Spanish became the most widely studied foreign language in high schools.
According to the British Council’s latest Language Trends report, 8,433 students aged 18 and over took Spanish for their final exams last year.
This compares to 7,671 for French, whose teaching among teenagers has declined alongside German since 2005.
However, French remains the most commonly taught language in primary schools.
It may have taken Zack and his classmates 90 minutes to drive to the theater, but other groups come from as far away as Liverpool in north-west England and Brussels.
“There is nothing like it in Europe,” said Paz.
The three rows of seats and the small stage make the theater an intimate place where the audience can almost touch the actors and feel the emotions.
“It’s a magical place with a very special atmosphere,” said Eduardo Mayo, who plays Lorca and voices Don Cristobal.
“We will be studying Lorca’s plays next year, but this is a good start,” said Fecher, who has been learning Spanish for five years.
© 2022 AFP