Review from Michael Portillo of House of Desires by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz at the Swan Theatre Stratford, for The New Statesman

26 July 2004.

"What time does the play end?" I asked as I took my seat for House of Desires. "It depends how much you laugh." On that basis I would guess that the audience delayed the final curtain by several minutes on the night that I attended.

In one scene a male servant named Castaño sent on a dangerous mission by his master decides that his best hope lies in dressing up as a woman. It's something of a theatrical cliché of course. But on this occasion Simon Trinder converted what was probably little more than a stage direction in the original play into ten minutes of mounting hilarity. At Stratford's splendid Swan Theatre seating surrounds the stage on three sides. Trinder made the most of it swooping on members of the audience and dragging them into his masquerade. His lines appeared to be mere improvisation and the length of his solo probably does vary according to how well the laughs are flowing. He fills the stage with complete assurance.

It was enough to make me believe in the success of the Royal Shakespeare Company's experiment in establishing a special ensemble to perform four plays chosen from Spain's Golden Age, the seventeenth century. We are told that the actors have been given longer than usual to rehearse and think through the dramatic possibilities of the works. For House of Desires director Nancy Meckler and her troupe have produced an extraordinarily vivacious performance with beautiful stagecraft. Their timing in this fast-moving farce is impeccable.

Catherine Boyle's new translation is very free. She renders some passages in verse with a Shakespearean feel. But when Castaño gets hungry he tells us he's off to the cake shop to get some cream buns. It jarred a bit but the guffaws kept coming.

Three noblemen and two ladies are trapped together in a house. Each desires another but requited love is in short reply. The chase looks more like a circle, and everyone is plotting to do down a rival. It would be easier to resolve the muddle if only each of them did not so consistently grasp the wrong end of every stick, and certainly if the servants could be persuaded to keep their oar out of it. Helpfully our characters tell us in elaborate asides what they are thinking, letting us in on the scale of their misunderstandings and self-deceptions. While they do Meckler freezes the action with superb comic results. The candles keep getting blown out and the actors grope about finding other bodies in the dark and of course drawing wrong conclusions.

The piece is, however, as much satire as knockabout. Seven decades earlier Cervantes had needed, for reasons of self-preservation, to put his mordant social commentary into the words of a madman, Don Quixote. House of Desires more straightforwardly lampoons the hypocrisy of the aristocracy's value system. They may dress their lust as courtly love but their nobility poorly masks their baser motives. Their convoluted code of honour makes them ridiculous. Tied in knots, they present their behaviour as chivalric when it is merely selfish.

What sort of hard-bitten cynic could have written such a worldly piece? It is astonishing that it flowed from the pen of a nun toiling behind the convent grille. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz had been long enough at court before deciding to take the veil to know how the nobility carried on, and though she lived in Mexico she had seen performances of Spanish theatre. Her title Los Empeños de la Casa is a pun on a play by Calderón de la Barca, to whom her text pays explicit tribute.

Juana was a highly intelligent woman who, finding that formal education was denied to women, made herself learnèd through long solitary hours in the library. She became a campaigner for a woman's right to be taught as men were. Becoming a nun gave her the chance to continue her writing, and although unseen in the convent she was a celebrity playwright and pamphleteer.

She wrote herself into the character of Leonor, the only one of those trapped in the house who attracts our sympathy. Meckler makes the link between author and character explicit. Yet Leonor is not a woman of pure virtue in the conventional sense. She is so endowed with beauty and intelligence that men have thrown themselves at her and lured her with their flattery. It is not easy for a woman faced by such temptations to keep her virtue, she tells us, and indeed she elopes. There is no hint at all that the author-nun disapproves of her heroine's conduct.

Locks play an important part in this play and Meckler supplies deliberately overstated sound effects each time a man imprisons a woman inside the house of desires. Juana's symbolism is clear.

Although she could not leave the cloister to see her works performed, they have vaulted the convent wall and survived from the Golden Age. Reviving this play introduces a delightful comedy to our repertoire, and focuses attention on a truly admirable woman and artist.