It was strange returning from Tejas Verdes. Walking out of the gate, I didn’t know which way to go or what I should be doing. I wanted something. I wanted to find things out. What does it mean to be able to say ‘I will never live under tyranny, I will never be tortured’? Tejas Verdes reminded me how little I know. It was devastating. It’s perhaps the most generous thing an artwork can do for you, making you realise that there’s something you need to find out. Plays like this are essential to our political and ethical consciousness. This one is also a beautiful work of art.
Tejas Verdes was a seaside resort for wealthy Chileans, until the coup d’état of 1973, when it was turned into a detention and torture centre operated by Pinochet’s Junta. Thousands of suspected political opponents were tortured there and thousands were ‘disappeared’. Structured into seven monologues, the play tells the story of a disappeared girl and six other characters related to her life, her torture and her murder. Not all are directly implicated; some are her friends, another is a Spanish lawyer defending Pinochet in a press conference many years after her death. The text is translated from Fermín Carbal’s Spanish original. It is sparse, taut and hauntingly direct, maintaining a poetic intensity despite being written in simple, unadorned prose. The presentation and juxtaposition of the characters allows a textured analysis of the events without ever being steered towards a conclusion. We are simply there to hear them. The horror speaks for itself.
Madeleine Potter’s performance, playing all seven characters (which is not demanded by the script), is exquisite. She is restrained, but preternaturally poised and alert. To memorise and live out each of these monologues and the grotesque histories that accompany them is an astonishing act of emotional generosity. Potter was noticeably affected as she bowed at the play’s close, giving herself to the text until her reserves of feeling seemed almost to be spent. Hers is an exceptional craft, expertly tightened by Robert Shaw’s direction.
The achievement of Tejas Verdes is not just that it reminds us of the appalling crimes committed under Pinochet’s fascist Junta, but that it gives a voice to these memories in a way that transcends its specific political situation and invites an examination of your own ethical life. It is a devastating intervention on historical apathy as well as a reminder of residual guilt. It is essential, brutal theatre that demands and deserves our attention. It is something I will never forget.