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Rattling good tale makes for a glorious night out

Review by Paul Nelson

THERE are times when I set off for the theatre with a prescience that what I am going to see I will enjoy. I put this down to experience and hope I am right in my prognosis. When I am looking forward to seeing something I think is to be good and it is, my joy is boundless, the reverse is always shattering, and gives me no satisfaction.

It therefore gave me double pleasure on going to the Greenwich Playhouse to see Alice de Souza's new play, Ines de Castro, which I seem to have been anticipating for ages. Ms de Souza did not let the subject, cast, director, me or the rest of the audience down.

Ines de Castro is, I suppose, to Portugal something akin to what Mary Queen of Scots is to Scotland, their lives being both romantic and stirring (certainly for writers on these subjects) though vastly different.

Ines was summoned to the court in Portugal when the heir apparent, Dom Pedro, married a Castilian princess, Clemenca. Ines was to be her lady in waiting.

Ines was disturbingly beautiful, and Dom Pedro soon fell under her spell and they began an adulterous relationship which resulted in court scandal. On the death of Clemenca, they openly lived together, Ines bearing him four children.

Accused of being illegitimate, as well as being the mother of Dom Pedro's illegitimate children and presumptive heirs, the King of Portugal ordered her death as the most convenient way of preventing the Portuguese court becoming a satellite of the Castilian court, and her death started a civil war between King and Crown Prince.

Realising the effect of the war was ultimately destroying his own country, a peace was made during which Dom Pedro swore to forgive the plotters who killed Ines, but on the death of his father had them arrested, tortured and killed. He finally took revenge on the court at his coronation by exhuming the dead body of Ines and placing her on the throne at his side, forcing the courtiers to watch her being crowned his queen.

It's good stuff all this and makes for an exciting evening in the theatre. The actors appear to be delighted that they are not expected to speak pap and rise to the greater moments of the play with both precision and panache.

I believe it was Kenneth Tynan who propounded the theory that we are really not all that interested in what goes on in semis and terrace houses, but the same acts set at court, where crowns and kingdoms are at stake, command our attention.

Based on that premise, this play deserves to be seen on a grander scale. A theatre capable of handling a larger cast of courtiers and more of the battle action would give a dimension of grandeur that would complement the vaster aspects of the play and allow the author the scope one instinctively feels is being reined in. Ines de Castro is the nearest new play to challenge the classical mould that I have seen in ages. It is a really glorious night out.

Starting the play with a good deal of the aforementioned panache is Jeremy Spriggs, who, as narrator, chorus and courtier propels the evening through whatever pitfalls might have been lying in wait for it.

It's a smashing performance of both power and sincerity and sets a tone the rest of the cast have to match. That they revel in the challenge is evident and provides a wonderful theatrical experience. There is not a weak performance and members of the cast I may not mention here should not take that as a disparagement. They must believe me when I report that they are practically perfect.

There is a strong and dashing performance from Sebastien Lawson as Dom Pedro, a fiery concern from Laura Cannon as the Queen, and a realistic and moving performance of Ines by Sally Vanderpump. Even in their moments of joy together, I found her and Dom Pedro stirring, and the knowledge of what is to befall the pair of them brings, in the middle of sharing their delight, a lump to the throat.

Hissing and hatred has to go to one of the most spiteful characters to be around in years. Driven by a genuine fear that internal governmental power will be lost to his country if Ines becomes Queen of Portugal, Christopher Hale, as Dom Pero Coelho, energetically pursues his quest to get rid of Ines with the single-mindedness of any modern anti-euro zealot.

Indeed, not only is the play reminiscent of anti-euro feelings which are disturbing but there is also raised the parallel with the projected alliance between Camilla Parker Bowles and Prince Charles.

That in mediaeval times such a situation could easily have produced a civil war is starkly present in the production.

Director, Bruce Jamieson, has handled all the excitement and action with a gusto that must have given him a great deal of pleasure, especially as it was so extremely well received. A bouquet must be handed to him along with flowers for the entire cast.

However, the champagne must be reserved for the author. Alice de Souza has dealt herself a winning hand and she has played it skillfully.

If you want a rattling good tale, told well, look no further than Greenwich. It makes a fabulous night out.

Ines de Castro by Alice de Souza, Directed by Bruce Jamieson, Designed by Liam Daniel Shea, Costumes Saskia Green, Lighting Robert Gooch. WITH: Jeremy Spriggs (Alvaro Pais), Laura Cannon (Dona Beatriz), Sebastien Lawson (Dom Pedro), Dudley Hinton (Alfonso Madeira), Sally Vanderpump (Ines de Castro), Jackson Wright (Fernando de Castro), Clare Kissane (Dona Constanca), Christopher Hale (Dom Pero Coelho), Tom Brent (Dom Alvaro Goncalves), Peter Moor (Dom Diego Lopes Pacheco), Abbess (Clare Kissane). Produced by Alice de Souza for Galleon Theatre Company at the Greenwich Playhouse, Greenwich BR Station Approach, Greenwich SE10. Tickets 020 8858 9256.

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