Armfield gives 'Spain's Hamlet' its Aussie premiere at the University's York Theatre

18 July 2006

Australia's first professional production of Lope De Vega's seventeenth century, Spanish classic, Peribanez, opens in the York Theatre this week, a grand finale to the acclaimed Company B's year-long stay at the University's Seymour Theatre Centre.

"It's thrilling for us to be able to open up that territory," said director Neil Armfield who has a history of staging big, earthy classics, including Hamlet, The Alchemist and The Marriage of Figaro.

Casilda (Leeanna Walsman) and Pedro (Socratis Otto) whose bliss is blighted by abuse of power
Casilda (Leeanna Walsman) and Pedro (Socratis Otto) whose bliss is blighted by abuse of power

In Peribanez, theEden of young peasant couple, Pedro and Casilda, is blighted by the lust of the Commander of Ocana, and the play turns into a life and death chase against time, power and desire.

"I think the play is partly about the natural balance between male and female in a society or in a person and how when the male goes out of control it leads to disaster," Armfield said. "It's also about the responsibilities of power and how we need to be led by people who lead through example."

He calls Peribanez 'The Spanish Hamlet' for its popularity in Spanish speaking countries and because "the moral issue of the act of revenge is caught in the centre of the play".

"You can feel it's been written at the time of Shakespeare," he said. "Both playwrights look at kings and their pawns, but whereas Shakespeare focussed on the world of the monarch, the life of Peribanez is absolutely in the earth."

And in the earth it will be staged, Dale Ferguson's set design calling for ten tons of earth, 15 tons of wheat and a sandstone well two floors' deep.

It's not the first time Armfield has deposited earth in the Seymour Centre. He laid down a field of turf and rolled in a cricket sight board for his 1979Sydney University Dramatic Societyproduction of Give Me Shelter in the Downstairs Theatre - the show that "opened the door into professional theatre" for him.

"That was my first experiment with using massive real elements as a way of finding a ground for theatre to play against," saidArmfieldwho is known for creating installations rather than 'sets'.

Director Neil Armfield who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from Sydney University earlier this year.
Director Neil Armfield who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from Sydney University earlier this year.

He has taken Tanya Ronder's lively translation of Peribanez - first presented at London's Young Vic in 2003 - and "knocked it around a bit for the Australian voice".

"A nice thing about doing a classic in translation is you have to find a language which is appropriate to the actors and the audience's ears," Armfield said.

"One approach is to translate it into the contemporary voice of England at that time, but it's actually more interesting to find a language that has resonance with the contemporary ear. That's why the European tradition of Shakespeare is so alive - they have translations which are evolving all the time as their society and their audiences evolve."

Not unusually, Armfield's Peribanez is a very vigorous production for the13 actors and he is rejoined for it by choreographer Kate Champion who worked with him on Cloudstreet.

"I love her courage in taking a theatrical idea and helping to physicalise it," he said.

Hisbiggest challenge as director has been "finding the actual rhythm of the play", he said.

"It's a huge canvas that Lope paints on. The play moves between a palace in Ocana, the town square, inside the peasants' household, and a cathedral in Toledo. It has this grand, operatic setting and finding a way of making all of that vivid and clear, within what we wanted to be a very simple space of earth, water, wheat and sunlight, has taken quite a lot of thought and work."

After Peribanez, Company B returns to its renovatedBelvoir Streettheatre, but Armfield has enjoyed theYork which he finds "terrific to work in".

"It suits productions that embrace the audience and can range physically - you just have to open it up and let things play their scale in there."

Peribanez runs until 20 August.

Tickets (9699 3444, include an opening week discount offer for University of Sydney staff quoting 'USYD offer' (for performances 20-30 July).

Media enquiries: University Media Office on 9351 2261 / 9351 4312 ( OR Company B publicist on 8302 2922 or mobile 0419 221 805 (