Aside from the occasional Lorca production or the (even more occasional) Golden Age revival, Spanish drama gets short shrift on the London stage these days. And contemporary - that is to say, post-1940s - Spanish drama gets shorter shift still. Kudos, then, to the enterprising Orange Tree for presenting Yours for the Asking (the Spanish title is Usted también podrá disfrutar de ella; literally, You Can Enjoy Her Too), a 1973 piece by Ana Diosdado that proves quite the special find. Expertly translated by Patricia W. O’Connor, Diosdado’s play is an intelligent, rich and moving work, and Sam Walters presents it with admirable assurance, fluidity and grace in this compelling production.
Juan (Steven Elder) is a journalist for a trashy women’s weekly who views himself, his boss and the magazine’s tittle-tattle-worshipping readership with just about equal contempt. En route with his photographer colleague Manny (James Joyce) to interview a model who’s embroiled in an ad campaign scandal, he ends up trapped in the rickety lift of his interviewee’s building. (The sensible Manny takes the stairs.) When the model, Susi, locks herself out of her apartment, she and Juan start to talk and to bond. To the point that, once released, Juan ends up spending a further five days in her company, gradually learning the reasons for the perturbed star’s distress.
From this premise - not to mention the cheeky Feydeau-esque title - the viewer might be forgiven for anticipating Women on the Verge-style farcical shenanigans here. But Yours for the Asking is in fact a deeply serious - though by no means po-faced - work. The play clearly emerges from a specific historical context - Francoist Spain in its death throes yet still exercising an oppressive grip on its citizens - but it still has plenty of relevance to say to us today. Praising plays for prescience has become a much too popular pastime among the press just now, but Yours for the Asking constantly surprises with its all-too-relevant critiques of celeb culture (the action takes place in the country that gave the world Hello! magazine, lest we forget) and political apathy.
Not that any of this would count for so much were it not for the play’s intriguing, innovative form or its well drawn characters. The structure that Diosdado has devised is marvellously fluid and filmic: the action moves backwards and forwards in time, accruing depths and layers, resonances and ironies, as it goes. It’s a puzzle play of sorts, and Walters’s production gives it the pull of a thriller, aided by a nifty design by Katy Mills that meets the challenge of the play’s shifts in time-frame and location with a minimum of fuss.
And as the play twists and turns back on itself, concealing and disclosing, so our view of the characters shifts and morphs. Initially sceptical of his commission, Juan gradually comes to see that Susi’s predicament - her strange conversion into a public hate figure - allows him to pen the kind of societal critique he’s been longing to write. Is he using Susi for a story - or maybe it’s Susi who’s using him? It’s probably a result of the censorship of the time that the play gets a tad fuzzy when it comes to zeroing in on the root causes of the “System” whose corruption it critiques. Still, Diosdado manages to offer provocative and salient musings on press ethics, stars as symbols (constructed, idolised, despised), herd mentality and - last but certainly not least - the strangeness and the vagaries of love.
Following his memorable turns in the last Orange Tree season as the befuddled second spouse in How to Be Happy and the politician in Mottled Lines, Steven Elder delivers an even stronger central performance here, one that shows Juan’s bitterness to be caused by both wounded pride and idealism, and by his disappointment in his country. Scarred by a prison experience that’s left him with both a justifiable grievance and an unpleasant sense of martyrdom, the character is both a convincingly troubled figure and one who rather enjoys his sense of slumming it. As Susi, Mia Austen partners him beautifully, delivering a nuanced, striking turn that keeps us tantalisingly uncertain as to the extent of the character’s delusion or awareness. In the role of Celia, Juan’s lover and colleague, Rebecca Pownall is wonderfully candid and touching as she reveals both her sympathy and her frustration with her partner, while James Joyce (not a misprint!) is exceptionally likeable as the insouciant photographer who ends up undergoing his own unexpected political awakening. And another OT regular, David Antrobus, is quite effective in five small but key roles: as a sympathetic coroner, a manic editor, a disgruntled porter, a suspicious neighbour and a glib ad agent.
A gripping and unsettling experience, Yours for the Asking has wit, heart and bite - as well as a final revelation that arrives like a punch to the gut. Here’s hoping that we get to see more of Ms. Diosdado’s work on the British stage.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Further information at the Orange Tree website.