‘Loco’ for Lorca: UK theatre fuels passion for Spanish

With its popular bilingual programming, London's Cervantes Theatre is perfect proof of how Spanish has become the favourite foreign language of young British people.

Theatre actors on stage
Theatre actors in Germany are one of the many types of artistic freelancer who can get social insurance in Germany that's unavailable to most other freelancers. (Photo by Justin TALLIS / AFP)

“That Lorca is completely bonkers,” says an actress in Spanish, prompting laughter from a group of British teenagers at London’s Cervantes Theatre.

Artistic director Paula Paz, who co-founded the theatre with the actor and director Jorge de Juan, said Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca is a firm favourite with audiences in the UK.

From an unassuming corner of south London, the venue is helping to drive a growing interest in Spanish, which is now the most-studied foreign language in the UK.

The theatre, built from scratch in a former garage under railway arches, opened in 2016 with Lorca’s 1933 tragedy “Bodas de Sangre” (“Blood Wedding”).

One of the highlights of its forthcoming season is a seven-week run of his last play from 1936, “La Casa de Bernada Alba” (“The House of Bernada Alba”).

Lorca — killed later than year during Spain’s civil war — is not the only dramatist to be showcased at the tiny 80-seat theatre in Southwark, on the south bank of the River Thames.

Others include the 16th-century playwright Felix Lope de Vega as well as lesser-known and up-and-coming writers from Spain and Latin America.

They include Chilean author Isabel Allende’s “La Casa de los Espiritus” (“The House of the Spirits”) and “La Realidad” (“The Reality”) by Argentina’s Denise Despeyroux.

Artistic director Paula Paz poses for a photograph at the Cervantes Theatre in southeast London. (Photo by Justin TALLIS / AFP)

Bilingual performances

To reach a wider audience, performances alternate between Spanish and English, although plays have also been performed switching between both languages.

They include a bilingual performance of Cervantes’ farce “El Juez de los Divorcios” (“The Divorce Judge”) and Shakespeare’s monologues in 2016.

In September there was a complex in-house production based on Pablo Sorozabal’s 1942 operetta “Black, El Payaso” (“Black The Clown”).

The dialogue was in English and the songs in Spanish, all translated with digital subtitles.

Despite its name, the Cervantes Theatre is independent from the Spanish language and cultural body the Instituto Cervantes, from which it receives a small grant.

This month, Lorca’s lesser-known “Retablillo de Don Cristobal” (“The Puppet Play of Don Cristobal”) has been delighting students.

“I think it’s a nice way to look at the language,” said Zack Fecher, 17, on a trip from Haberdashers’ Boys’ School in Elstree, just outside London.

“I’ve seen films in Spanish but this is the first play and you have to focus on the words and they speak very fast.”

Ana Zamora, director of the theatre company Nao d’Amores, which specialises in reviving lost plays, has been invited from Spain to present the production.

“You don’t have to embellish the texts to make them easier for foreign audiences to access,” she told AFP.

Audiences can recognise the similarities between the puppet Don Cristobal and the traditional English character Mr Punch, she said.

At the same time there is “an intriguing air of the exotic”, she added.

(Photo by Justin TALLIS / AFP)

‘Nothing like it’

For Paz, the “demand for quality” gives the theatre its audience, which she describes as a mix of people who like alternative theatre, fans of Hispanic culture, and students of Spanish.

Students studying Spanish are becoming increasingly common in England. In 2019, Spanish became the foreign language most studied in high schools.

According to the British Council’s latest “Language Trends” report, last year 8,433 students took Spanish for their end-of-school exams at aged 18.

That compared to 7,671 for French, the study of which has been declining among teenagers alongside German since 2005.

French, however, remains the most-taught language in primary schools.

It may have taken Zack and his classmates 90 minutes to travel to the theatre but other groups come from as far as Liverpool, in northwest England, and Brussels.

“There’s nothing like it in Europe,” said Paz.

he three tiers of seating and small stage makes the theatre an intimate venue, where the audience can almost touch the actors and feel the emotion.

“It’s a magical space, with a very special atmosphere,” said Eduardo Mayo, who plays Lorca and voices Don Cristóbal.

“We will be studying Lorca’s plays next year but this is a good way to get started,” said Fecher, who has been learning Spanish for five years.

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¡Ojo! 14 very useful Spanish expressions with the word eye

They say the eyes never lie, and when it comes to the use of ‘ojo’ (eye) in Spanish there are plenty of everyday expressions which will help you become a true native speaker.

¡Ojo! 14 very useful Spanish expressions with the word eye

¡Ojo!: When Spaniards want to say ‘watch out!’ or ‘be careful!’, they say ¡ojo!

There’s also the idiom andarse con ojo, which implies watching your back or treading carefully. And to emphasise this even further, you can say andarse con cien ojos/mil ojos, to walk with 100 eyes or 1,000 eyes!

¡Ojo! El suelo está mojado. 

Watch out! The floor is wet.

Ándate con ojo con Jaime porque tiene fama de traidor. 

Watch your back with Jaime because he’s got a reputation for being a backstabber.

No pegar ojo: To not sleep a wink, used when you’ve been unable to sleep.

Me he pasado toda la noche en vela, no he pegado ojo. 

I’ve been up all night, I didn’t sleep a wink.

Costar un ojo de la cara: The same as saying in English ‘to cost an arm and a leg’, in the sense that something is very expensive or costly.  You can also use valer instead of costar, both mean ‘to cost’.

Pagarle los estudios a mi hijo me ha costado un ojo de la cara. 

Paying for my son’s studies has cost me an arm and a leg.

Mirar por el rabillo del ojo: To look sideways or out of the corner of your eye. 

No se inmutó pero no dejaba de mirarle por el rabillo del ojo.

He didn’t bat an eyelid but he wouldn’t stop looking at him out of the corner of her eye.

Tener ojo de lince: If you’ve got a very keen and observant eye, in English you say you have an eagle eye, but in Spanish you’d say you have a lynx eye. 

María tiene ojo de lince, no se le escapa ninguna. 

María has got a real eagle eye, she doesn’t miss a thing.

En un abrir y cerrar de ojos: Literally meaning in the time it takes to open or close your eyes, this expression is not too dissimilar to its English equivalent – in the blink of an eye – when something happens very quickly. 

En un abrir y cerrar de ojos el ladrón había robado las joyas.

In the blink of an eye the thief had stolen the jewels. 

Mirar con buenos ojos: To look upon someone or something favourably, to have a soft spot for something/someone or to have a positive outlook on something. 

El jefe te mira con buenos ojos aunque llegues tarde al trabajo.

The boss has a soft spot for you even if you’re late for work.

Ser el ojito derecho: If you’re someone’s ‘little right eye’, it means you’re the teacher’s pet. It doesn’t always have to apply to being a teacher’s favourite pupil as it can be used when referring to someone else’s preferred person. There’s also the expression la niña de sus ojos (the apple of somebody’s eye).

Margarita es el ojito derecho de la profe. 

Margarita is the teacher’s pet. 

A ojo: If you do something a ojo, it means you do it blindly or by eye or by guesswork, without knowing exactly.

Estoy calculando cuánta gente hay en la sala a ojo. 

I’m making a rough guess of how many people there are in the room.

Echarle un ojo a: ‘To throw an eye’ in Spanish means to check something out, to have a look at, to look over. It can also mean to keep an eye on or watch over someone or something.

Échale un ojo a este cuadro que he pintado. 

Have a look at this painting I’ve painted. 

Mal de ojo: Evil eye.

La gitana le echó un mal de ojo por no comprarle el romero. 

The gipsy woman cast an evil eye on her for not buying her rosemary. 

No tener ojos en la cara: ‘To not have eyes on one’s face’ actually means to not see something that’s obvious or to not pay attention or care to something. 

¿Cómo qué se ha perdido el niño? ¿Es que no tienes ojos en la cara?

What do you mean the boy is lost? Did you fall asleep at the wheel?

No quitar ojo: To stare intently at something or someone without fail. If it’s with desire, there’s also the expression comerse con los ojos a algo/alguien, to eat something or someone with the eyes.

La rubia no te quita ojo, chaval. 

The blonde girl won’t stop looking at you, man.