Re-imagining Cardenio

Cervantes' birthplace

January 20, 2011

Cervantes' birthplace is just about as authentic as Shakespeare's in Henley Street. It stands on the corner of a pleasant little street in Alcala de Henares. The convent his sister entered as a nun is just around the corner. On a bench in the pedestrianised street outside the house sits the ubiquitous figure of Don Quixote in bronze with Sancho Panza sitting next to him, carving a slice of ham.

Ann Bateson, our Spanish 'fixer' has introduced me to Juan Sanz Ballesteros, a theatre designer, who has helped to give Cervantes' House a sense of atmosphere, and he is my guide as we walk around it. I make notes about the shady courtyard with its linen canopy drawn against the sunlight; about the rather stiff little parlour with its upright chairs, and leather hangings, stamped to make them look as if they are woven, the fascinating low wooden braziers which would have warmed every room, the women's room on the first floor, with its carpeted dais, spread with cushions, its spinning wheel, mandolin, marquetry chests and escritoires and the child's room with its little altar to the Virgin Mary - all very useful material in trying to stage Cardenio.

Across the courtyard landing, in the exhibition room, there are copies of Cervantes' famous novel, Don Quixote, from every intervening century, and in many different languages. I look at the English edition and am astonished to find that Thomas Shelton's 1612 edition is open at the very start of the Cardenio episode. We decide to regard that as a good omen.

But the most special visit we made in Alcala de Henares was to the theatre. When our guide, Juan, was a young man in his twenties he and a friend were poking around the dusty old converted theatre which they had known as a cinema since they were boys and discovered that behind the eighteenth century galleries lay the remains of a courtyard corral theatre from the Golden Age of Spanish Drama, from the time of Cervantes himself.

With the pride of a parent, Juan showed us round the now restored space, from the pebbles of the original courtyard, to the trap doors, wind machines, and thunder rolls still intact under the boards of the seventeenth century stage. What a find! It was in a corral theatre such as this that Cervantes would have seen his early plays performed, and which must have staged the works of his contemporaries, Calderon de la Barca, Tirso de Molina and the prolific Lope de Vega.

Cervantes claimed to have written some twenty or thirty plays, of which only a few are extant. Imagine! Here I am spending all this time and effort wondering what Shakespeare's lost play might have been like, and nearly every play Cervantes ever wrote is missing. Were they any good? In his prologue to eight plays and interludes that he published at the end of his life, he writes with appealing self deprecation, that they were not all that bad: '... at least people didn't throw cucumbers.'

by Greg Doran  |  No comments yet

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