It’s the kind of story that rallies people together and strikes fear into the hearts of the rich and powerful: the downtrodden rise up and right the wrongs done to them by their oppressors. In the case of Fuente Ovejuna, the history is true. In Angus Evans’s new adaptation of the Spanish classic, the patterns of revolution ring out across time and place.
Fuente Ovejuna is a small town caught in a bloody battle between Portugal and Spain. On the one side is 17-year-old Master Rodrigo Téllez Girón (Shayne de Groot) and his Order of Calatrava, loyal to Portugal when it suits them, and on the other is Queen Isabel (Madeleine Withington) and King Fernando (Tristan Black) and their torturous Master of the Order of Santiago Manrique (Steve Corner). Throughout the political melee, Fuente Ovejuna is under the rule of Commander Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, a cruel tyrant who rapes, banishes, and murders as he sees fit. After enduring his punishments for too long, a young woman named Laurencia (Lucinda Howes) empowers the townspeople to exact their revenge and kill the Commander, which satisfies their sense of justice but brings the Spanish monarchy down upon them.
It’s a powerful true story of collective action and revolution which Evans uses to illustrate other injustices and opportunities for change in Australia specifically. In particular, Laurencia’s rousing monologue after her father failed to protect her and her aunt (Suzann James) could not have come at a more poignant time in Australia after weeks of prime news coverage of alleged sexual assaults, misogynistic harassment, and rapes by powerful Parliamentary figures. In Fuente Ovejuna, like in our country, women’s bodies are expendable, an easy sacrifice for the honour of the men around them.
Evans’s vision for this production was complex with many elements integrated to construct a rich theatrical landscape. The set design from Victor Kalka featured reams of sheets sewn around a town square which illustrated both the town’s humble position and the heightened theatricality of this production by evoking images of circus tents or puppet shows. Speaking of puppets, imagining the monarchs as enlarged, Picasso-esque puppet faces was an incredibly creative and intriguing choice. For costume designer Lucy Ferris to then clothe the townspeople in muted natural fibres and the Order of Calatrava in distorted silver masks was another clever delineation of power and performance.
In terms of the technical design, the inclusion of live music with Edward Hampton on guitar and Liam Peat on percussion played into the earthy quality of Kalka’s set design and built organic tension amongst the characters while also paying homage to Spanish culture and tradition. The lighting design by Jas Borsovszky was dramatic with great shifts between warm, natural sun and bleaker compositions with deep shadow and striking white light. Overall, each element of the production design clearly demonstrated the designer at the peak of their creativity which made the production feel full and dynamic, each element executed in consideration of the whole.
The cast is a large one which is, again, uniquely organised because, while the majority of the roles are singly cast, the cruel Commander was shared amongst many cast members in an interesting reflection of the collective teamwork of the townspeople. As an ensemble, the cast did very well to distinguish their different characters and their shared histories with a comfortable dynamic. James and Howes’s castings as the strong, defiant female leaders of Fuente Ovejuna suited their commanding stage presences which were then balanced by quieter characters like Frondoso (Davey Seagle) and Jacinta (Dominique de Marco). Each townsperson was understandable and loveable, which made their eventual torture and deaths the even more painful.
When life feels particularly bleak and hope for change begins to waver, we hold on to stories like that of Fuente Ovejuna as reminders of what is possible. So even while the central “people power” message can lean saccharine, it is worth remembering how the strength of numbers can lead to justice and a shared vision for an equitable future.
Fuente Ovejuna is running at Flight Path Theatre from March 25th – April 11th
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