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As artistic director Daniel Goldman pointed out on opening night, CASA Latin American Theatre Festival has moved from the dead to the living: from the humble beginnings of a festival performed in a London crypt in 2007 to major London venues in 2013. This conversation between the dead and the living is also a theme that reared its head at various points during the festival, given the not-too-distant histories of many Latin American countries that have been characterised by violent military dictatorships and desaparecidos (the disappeared). First and foremost, however, this was a theatre festival and one that was very much in conversation with the living.
The CASA Festival, for its sixth and biggest year, taken on the enormous task of giving voice – or perhaps more appropriately providing a home, a casa, for Latin American theatre in London over the course of ten days. This year it took place across a particularly wide range of venues: ILAS (the Insitute for Latin American Studies), Rich Mix, the Barbican and the Calthorpe Project, a community garden in Grays Inn Road. Performances from visiting companies came from Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile and Brazil; these were held alongside talks, Q&As, scratch nights, live music, community workshops and exhibitions. The varied list of countries and activities gives a good indicator of the diversity of the festival and its commitment to showcasing talent from Latin America and to supporting Latin American artists in London. Building this sense of community, this casa, is a unique aspect of this festival and one that enables discussions to carry on outside of the auditorium. The stand-out performances came from Teatro Malayerba (Ecuador) – with their two plays Instrucciones para Abrazar el Aire (A Guide to Holding Thin Air) and La Razón Blindada (The Bulletproof Reason) – and Bolivia’s Teatro de los Andes with their near-eponymous Shakespeare production, Hamlet de los Andes.
Teatro Malayerba have, like a weed (malayerba in Spanish), grown up through the cracks of the establishment to become one of the most influential theatre companies in Latin America. They have been running for 32 years and comprise Artístides Vargas, María del Rosario “Charo” Francés and Susana Pautasso. As “Charo” explains during one Q&A session the rationale behind their name is their longevity: “Weeds grow anywhere and everywhere: weeds don’t die.”
Instrucciones para abrazar el aire (A Guide to Holding Thin Air) is based on the true story of a grandmother’s experience of the disappearance of her niece in ’70s Buenos Aires. The performance and rehearsal process carried out by Malayerba are based on the grandmother’s account of her story to Vargas, with the first performance of the play having taken place in her living room in Buenos Aires. Though its origin is a true story, it is also very much a work of dramatic fiction. As Vargas states: “I write fiction. I don’t not write fiction.” The piece, then, is a lyrical blend of reality and unreality. This story is many things simultaneously: one woman’s story; an exemplary story of so many other towns in Latin America; and a work of fiction. This constant tension is felt in the constant movement between the three couples that populate the play and in the specificity of the details: chefs pickling rabbits; the lights of hanging paper houses being put out; cracking lewd jokes with pepper hand puppets; and, most significantly, the importance of laying one hand upon another to help ease the pain of loss. The play oscillates between unspeakable violence, to limitless pain, to absurd hilarity, to just plain clowning around. Teatro Malayerba creates a distinctive dramatic poetic by blending word and movement with such dexterity and beauty that the audience can be transported from suffering to laughter in a moment. As “Charo” stated in the post-show Q&A, laughter is what can set us free, and therefore is ultimately far more subversive than pain – though they come from the same place. “We always put in the comedy because we can’t stand reality- we can only go so far with pain and then we have to laugh.”
This use of humour is also powerfully adopted in La Razón Blindada (The Bulletproof Reason), which is based on the real-life story of Chico Vargas – Artístides Vargas’s brother – who was a political prisoner in Rawson prison in Patagonia for ten years. The story is based on his anecdote of inmates telling one another stories during solitary confinement, when they were allowed only one hour of face-to-face contact with another prisoner: 3pm on a Sunday. Artístides Vargas chose this story to be Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote for two reasons. First, the start of Don Quijote was written by Cervantes in prison. Second, Vargas was influenced by Kafka’s short story The Truth About Sancho Panza, which inverts the original Don Quijote narrative so that Quijote is dependent upon Sancho. The reference to the Argentine context is given in a testimony at the end of this performance, but is not written into the script itself; because of this, the play has been adapted into different contexts and performed widely in Latin America, North America and even farther afield.
Throughout all of these these adaptations, Vargas is adamant that the play’s two fundamentals always remain: the state of confinement in prison and the freedom of the imagination. The former is visualised in the form of a Sancho and Quijote who spend the entire performance gliding across the stage confined to chairs with wheels on them. In one of the final scenes they have joined the chairs to three tables and perform a choreography of imaginative freedom, as they recreate the famous Quijote windmill scene by spinning their chairs and tables in circles around the stage. The characters appear to fly on stage and in doing so transcend the reality of their situation: “We’ll dance in stillness.” As Sancho says, “what doesn’t exist can’t die” – and it is clear that this story will continue to be told in Latin America and beyond.
What happens when Bolivians interpret Hamlet? This is the question posed by Teatro de Los Andes, a troupe made up of Lucas Achiricio, Gonzalo Callejas, Alice Guimarães and Giampaolo Nalli. What happens is that the play opens with Hamlet greedily eating the skin off the face of his father’s recent corpse. The relentless corporality and power of the company’s physical choreography offered an exhilarating three-man version of a Hamlet which both is and definitely is not Hamlet. A brutal mad world confronts us here: an echo of the one that Shakespeare spoke of, but mostly one that speaks of identity and of the contradictions between the past and present of contemporary Bolivia: the complexities of identity for the mestizo (mixed race) and indigenous populations. A middle-aged Ophelia urinates into a bucket; Hamlet, “a filthy clay puppet”, raves in Quechua; there’s a punk rock guitar solo performance (“Lies! All politicians do is lie!”), not to mention the drag queens in traditional Peruvian dress that show us “the latest in entertainment” by having a wrestling match on stage. This world is as hilarious as it is disturbing. The skill of this company is that they work together as a seamless unit: particularly evident in their use of a single prop that functioned as a cupboard; table; bed and coffin. As commented by Alice Guimarães, Ophelia’s death is a focus of the narrative and by the end we realise that Ophelia has been drowning herself right from the very beginning. Her identity is both lost and multiplied; she is Ophelia and she is so many other women. “A woman drowns in her tears […] Another in her words […] A woman drowns today, right now, perhaps inside your own home.”
There are specific references to Bolivia, such as the prevalence of alcohol which is often used in ritual ceremonies. Alcohol is also used to draw a parallel between Hamlet’s loss of identity and the loss of identity of the aparapitas (Bolivians who make a living from carrying loads on their backs); these aparapitas, indeed, regularly die as a result of alcoholism. Central to their version of Hamlet is the company’s own artistic change in direction, given that this is the first play that they created following the break with their previous director of 20 years. This perhaps explains the preoccupation with father figures, with Hamlet’s absorption and destruction of his father’s corpse; then again, the play has a multiplicity of potential interpretations. As producer Juan Pablo stated in the post-show Q&A: “Theatre is never there to give answers. If it did it would give political messages, not art.” The company certainly achieved their objective of provoking artistic doubts and questions in the audience. Juan Pablo, an exiled Italian living in Peru, also added: “Europe doesn’t learn from Latin America. Nothing stops with death […] There is always something after death, always a continuation. In Europe we’ve lost the ability to look at what we were.” Whether you agree with this statement or not, I can certainly attest from my recent experiences of London theatre that it’s been a very long time since I witnessed plays embedded with such craft, richness and vigour as I have seen at CASA Festival 2013.
Notable also was Chile’s Teatro La Concepción (Chile), whose play Poder de papel (Paper Power), which combined energetic acting, slapstick comedy, clear sociopolitical commentary and an unmistakable street theatre buzz. Tavarka Teatro’s Las Cunetas Florecen en Primavera (And the Ditches Blossom in Spring) was similarly memorable, telling the story of the disappeared from Spain’s civil war. This was movingly depicted on stage, as the ghosts of the dead came back to life through mime and dance: “Suppose we disappear […] suppose they don’t forget us.”
For me, the most powerful message conveyed to London audiences last week was the sheer artistic skill and craftsmanship of these companies, accumulated over years – and in some cases decades – of work and collaboration. At times this was certainly a hindrance for the non-Spanish-speaking audience, given the tendency towards improvisation in some of the plays and the consequent absence of the English surtitles – a technical glitch that I am sure will be improved for next year’s audiences. “Charo” of Teatro Malayerba finished the opening night Q&A by saying, “I never thought the British would ask us anything”- and yet throughout the numerous post-show talks the questions from the audiences were relentless and the majority of the shows were sold out. This very clearly shows the appetite from London audiences for Latin American theatre, as well as the enormous amount that our theatre practitioners can learn from that hitherto overlooked continent.
The CASA Festival is now finished; it ran from Sep 27 to Oct 6. However, those interested in theatre at the Barbican can find more information at barbican.org.uk/theatre. Click here, too, to see what’s on at Rich Mix, here to see a list of events at the Institute of Latin American Studies and here for more information on the Calthorpe Project.