The Cervantes Theatre in south London puts on plays in Spanish and English

London (AFP) - “That Lorca is completely bonkers,” says the 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”).

Spanish is now the most-studied foreign language in England among high school students

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.

- 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”).

Artistic director Paula Paz says there is no similar venue elsewhere in Europe

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.

Plays alternate between Spanish and English, with digital subtitles

“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.

- ‘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.

In 2021, more students took Spanish in their end-of-school exams than French or German

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 Cristobal.

“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.