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Two vivid images remain with me from my series of visits to the Royal Court: a slumbering giant awakening from a coma and a grandfather explaining to his grandson the impossibility of apologising to a man he met “at work” in 1976. The scenes address two fundamental tenets of this run of New Plays From Chile: contemporary Chile working through the violence of the past; and the difficulty of finding a vocabulary capable of addressing this past today. These five plays were read during the week marking the fortieth anniversary of Chile’s military coup on the 11th September 1973, the violent overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government and its replacement by the regime of Augusto Pinochet – a regime that brought in its wake thousands of murdered, tortured, desaparecidos (disappeared) and exiled, particularly for the persecuted mapuche (indigenous inhabitants of the Southern Cone). The context of sustained injustice and the scale of the atrocity of human rights, when compared with the few hundred members of the Pinochet government convicted and imprisoned, is palpable. This backdrop of injustice, collective memory and confrontation of the violence of the inherited past lurks behind all of these plays written by a generation born after the coup.
In total the Royal Court Theatre staged five readings of five playwrights selected from an initial twelve, whose work had been developed over the last year in Santiago with UK playwrights Leo Butler, Nick Payne and the Royal Court’s International Director Elyse Dodgson. Of the five readings between 10 and 14th September, this review discusses three: Red Set (Tiempos Mejores) by Florencia Martínez Echeverría translated by Simon Scardifield, directed by Caitlin McLeod; Negra, The General’s Nurse (Negra, la enfermera del General) by Bosco Israel Cayo Álverez, directed by Richard Twyman & That Thing I Never Shared With You (Ese Algo Que Nunca Compartí Contigo) by Claudia Hidalgo, directed by Mark Ravenhill – both translated by William Gregory.
Florencia Martínez Echeverria’s The Red Set (Tiempos Mejores) highlights the uncomfortable and at times darkly comic contradiction between Chile’s past and present. The play ensues in the private hospital room of “Tuta”, a woman who has been in a coma for some years and follows the conversations of her children at her bedside. Tuta was a left-wing revolutionary during the 1970s with close political ties to Allende and an example constantly compared with her socialist, left wing and economically comfortable offspring. Her children are archetypes of their generation: an activist; a politician; an intellectual and a musician. It is as though they too have fallen into a coma, as their conversations often repeat themselves, and their incessant talk exposes their stasis and disconnection from today’s reality. There are uncomfortable reminders of the outside world, symbolized in the frequent car crashes and violence reported on the streets. From the sanitised confines of the hospital, much like Lady Macbeth’s spotted handkerchief, the spectre of blood keeps returning, even as the authorities wash the streets. The disjunction is clear between this protected class congregated in the private hospital and the random and recurrent violence experienced on a daily basis by civilians being mowed down by cars on the streets. With the second car crash the tragic has become absurd, reminiscent of Marx’s statement that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. Cristina’s dream-vision of Tuta awakening from the coma seems to be an allegory for Chile, as Martínez Echeverria stated in the post-show discussion: “Chile is a country that was asleep and that needs to wake up.” However, even this apparently hopeful vision of awakening is simultaneously tainted by a suicide and a toast to their collective “failure”.
Negra, The General’s Nurse (Negra, la enfermera del General) by Bosco Israel Cayo Álvarez follows the return of Pinochet’s nurse after 32 years – a decade of which were spent in hiding – to her family home in the mountains. The story unravels simultaneously in a landscape of contemporary mundanity – of TV interviews; conversations on buses – in a haunted unreality featuring a dreamscape of mountains, deserts and nightmares. The inevitable infiltration of the past with the present is shown in the impossibility for the nurse to “forget what you didn’t do”, and the spectre of her guilt follows her into the remote mountain village. Yet the violence of the past becomes a doppelgänger of the present through graphic flashbacks to her work as Pinochet’s nurse, and the lead poisoning of her father and sister by the end. As the miner states, “justice will be done” – and the justice we see enacted through an inverted love story is a powerful one: she is condemned to lose the only person she loves. This justice seems to emanate not only from the people, but from the very bowels of nature itself. The ominous figure of the nurse, a malevolent, grotesque mother figure, is skilfully drawn out by the playwright and delicately translated by Gregory who successfully brings the Andean desert to London. The question on which the play ends draws resonance with Martínez Echeverria’s, which asks: “Is this death or is it life? No difference. Same unhappiness […] I can’t forget.”
That Thing I Never Shared With You (Ese Algo Que Nunca Compartí Contigo) by Claudia Hidalgo was a fitting close to the run. It raises issues pertinent to Chile today: the absence of men, particularly father figures, and how to begin the process of formulating questions about the past that need to be asked on both sides. In their leading roles, Justine Mitchell and Tim Piggott-Smith were evocative and complemented the play’s intimate analysis of a relationship between a father and a daughter, and the destructive effect of the regime’s legacy upon this family. Though it begins as a thriller—a man following a mother and her son—the play ultimately becomes a tragedy when it exposes this woman’s father to be a “dog”, a murderer from the Pinochet regime, and the follower his victim. The victim and the torturer are oppressed by the past, and live their lives by both haunting and running from it. The impossibility of the father apologising to his victim, and his inability to deal with the past, are shown as he states: “I don’t know how to fix it. I’ve been hiding since the ’90s.” It would be interesting to see an Act Two of this play and a further unpicking of these difficult questions.
Certainly, Dr. Victor Figueroa Clark’s (LSE) opening comment on the 11th September – that “the Chilean people are a sleeping giant awakening, and when they do I am sure that 1970 [the year of Allende’s election] will be their reference point” – came full circle in the playwrights post-show discussion after the final play. What began with the impossibility of the past and finding a vocabulary with which to confront it became a possibility of asking questions, translated into a different language and articulated in a different country. As Bosco Israel Cayo Álvarez commented, fiction is used to both “escape reality, but also to get closer to it”. In all three of these plays there were moments where the originality and vividness of the writing transcended the ties of the past, to become powerful moments of drama: universal to all languages and contexts. This in turn highlights the strong tradition of playwriting that has and continues to emerge from Chile.
New Plays from Chile ran at the Royal Court Theatre in partnership with the British Council, the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes, Chile and the Teatro a Mil Foundation. It is now finished, but those interested in Latin American theatre can still catch the CASA Latin America Festival at various venues across London from Sep 27 to Oct 6 at the Barbican, Rich Mix and the Institute for Latin American Studies.