Language and Power: Hamlyn by Juan Mayorga at The Space in the Isle of Dogs

Language and Power: <em>Hamlyn</em> by Juan Mayorga at The Space in the Isle of Dogs
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Hamlyn by Juan Mayorga at E14's The Space
Juan Mayorga’s Hamlyn, at E14’s The Space, is a scorching interrogation of the narratives we take for granted.

Juan Mayorga’s Hamlyn is a play about language and power – the slippery ambiguity of language; the sorry manipulation of meaning. Mayorga is one of Spain’s foremost playwrights: the original Spanish version, Hamelin, was first staged in Madrid in 2005 to much critical acclaim. Now, the vigorous new writing crucible that is E14’s The Space has staged a new translation, courtesy Queen’s University Belfast’s David Johnston, a man with supreme command of Hispanophone theatre – from Lope to Lorca.

The play is loosely based on the fable The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Here as there, a city bubbles with corruption: “A beautiful city glitters during the day. But at night, the rats emerge.” The plot centres on the wealthy Pablo Rivas who is accused of buying sexual favours from a young boy, Josemari, from a disadvantaged family. Montero, the investigating judge, is in charge of examining the allegations. As the plot unravels it becomes increasingly difficult to locate the “truth” of the story: whether Rivas is guilty of abuse or whether he is a kindly benefactor whose  interest in the boy has been misinterpreted. By the end, the “rat” of the play becomes increasingly difficult to locate as Josemari’s narrative is taken out of his hands by the other more powerful characters. Is Rivas to blame? Or is Montero?  (“The origin of the monster is in your head.”)

In this play there is a cross-examination, not only of Rivas and his suspected abuse, but also of the distortion of the real “truth” of what happened to Josemari. The more the characters talk, the less clearly the audience is able to judge the true narrative of the incident. Likewise, the more the characters talk, the more silent the child becomes – until he is left with no voice whatsoever, because “to listen to a child is the hardest thing to do in the world”.  What is clear by the end is that Josemari and his family have very little, if any, control over their narrative. Why? Because they have no voice; in other words, they are poor. Time and time again their voices are subsumed by those that are more powerful than them.

Indeed, Hamlyn is, in many ways, a play of voices. There is the voice of the media, which transforms the story into a sensationalist headline about a child abuse ring. There is the voice of the law, symbolised by Montero, who himself declaims the journalists use of “literature” instead of “hard facts”, and yet whose own seeking of an empirical truth is exposed as  subjective and unreliable. There is the dominating voice of the state, with its Orwellian tone of unequivocal reason: “The city is facing difficult times; we are looking out for public interest as we always do.” Finally, there is the voice of the child psychologist who, in a well-intentioned but misguided gesture, separates Josemari from his family and puts him in care: “When the family fails to protect, the state intervenes.” The psychologist is exposed as being as guilty as the journalists of creating another false narrative, borne out of Freudian theory and suffocated by bureaucracy. Though the family are poverty stricken with six children, have they failed to protect their son? And does the state have such an unequivocal “right” to take a child away from its family?

The dominant narratives of the “truth” becomes less credible and more threatening as the play goes on, and in using such dogmatic language Mayorga highlights the frailty of the  individual voice (Josemari) and how it is vulnerable to being dwarfed and ultimately annihilated by the multiple voices of power. The “truth” that is sought by those in power is meant to prove who is “right” and what is “wrong”, though this is in turn exposed as a fallacy as each character clearly has their own agenda for doing so. Mayorga forces the audience to interrogate the unequivocal veracity of these powerful voices – the media, the law and the state – that shape an individual’s narrative. This provokes another question: do we interrogate these voices enough?

The production design gives a visual amplification to these ideas. The misé-en-scene is stark: a bare stage painted as a huge chalk board. The characters draw their narratives on the walls creating a kind of story board, which becomes a powerful dramatic tool for telling the story. As language constantly fails, what becomes increasingly important are the images of the stories scribbled in multi-coloured chalk onto these walls. These drawings are not only fundamental to telling the story but they also visually indicate the multiple layers of the narrative; the words take on different meanings as they are drawn. Similarly, the pauses and silences – read out loud by the “C0mmentator”, the internal narrator – also highlights the gap between language and meaning. The Commentator often breaks the audience’s catharsis by making direct observations: “As the audience knows, it is the spectator who imagines the lights, sets and costumes. Perhaps you can imagine that.” His relentless reading of stage directions and the movement between the competing narratives of the characters encourages a more self-reflexive audience, who are at all times aware of the artifice of their spectatorial position. The audience are similarly invited to interrogate their position in the play, as merely a passive observer or as one integral to the telling of the story itself.

By the end of the play, the harrowing words “deliver us from evil” has been scrawled on the stage; we’re told that Montero goes to bed every night “with the feeling I’m just flailing in the dark”. One can’t help but feel the implication of Hamlyn, a play that writhes in the underbelly of a corrupt metropolis, being staged in Canary Wharf – and as debates about welfare, poverty and press regulation continue to feed the punditariat, the decision to revive Mayorga is especially timely. What I think Mayorga suggests, and what the actors powerfully convey, is that we lack a shared language of empathy where society, state and press mutually listen to one another. Instead, the power imbalance is too great – which means that, even in 2014, “to listen to a child is the hardest thing to do in the world”.
Hamlyn continues at The Space until May 9. For more information, see the theatre website – and also read about the Out of the Wings project on Spanish-language theatre.

Charlotte Fereday

About Charlotte Fereday

Charlotte is a full time final year AHRC funded PhD candidate in the Spanish, Portuguese & Latin American Studies department (SPLAS) at King's College London. Her research focuses on the plays of Spanish writers who went into exile in Latin America following Spain's Civil War. She's also a part time Research Assistant working on a Hispanic theatre in translation project "Out of the Wings" (www.outofthewings.org), a platform that makes the riches of Spanish & Spanish American theatre accessible to English-speaking researchers, theatre professionals & anyone with internet access. See her research biography here: http://kcl.academia.edu/CharlotteFereday

Charlotte is a full time final year AHRC funded PhD candidate in the Spanish, Portuguese & Latin American Studies department (SPLAS) at King's College London. Her research focuses on the plays of Spanish writers who went into exile in Latin America following Spain's Civil War. She's also a part time Research Assistant working on a Hispanic theatre in translation project "Out of the Wings" (www.outofthewings.org), a platform that makes the riches of Spanish & Spanish American theatre accessible to English-speaking researchers, theatre professionals & anyone with internet access. See her research biography here: http://kcl.academia.edu/CharlotteFereday

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