The mission of the Cervantes Theatre “to showcase the best Spanish and Latin American plays in London” is strikingly realised in its closing play of the 2019 season that featured works by female playwrights.
Imaginative, powerful and sensitive
Her debut novel of that name thrust Isabel Allende into the international limelight in 1982. Although born in Peru, she grew up in Chile and lived in other countries of the Americas and this work was published in Argentina, partly out of political necessity and also following rejection elsewhere. In 2009 Caridad Svich adapted it for the stage in Spanish and later in English, receiving awards from around the world for both versions and her wider contribution to drama. Completing the trio of women intimately connected to this work is Paula Paz, Associate Director of the Cervantes Theatre, whose vision for the play has brought to fruition an imaginative, powerful and sensitive interpretation.
The book has its origins in a letter Allende wrote to her 100-year-old grandfather when she received the news that he was dying. It is not a biography, but it is rooted in the struggles she experinced of being a feminist, as she says, from the age of five, in man’s world that had never heard the term. Personal struggles are interwoven with history, and although the book makes no reference to a named country the parallels with Chile, the fall of her second cousin Salvador Allende, President of Chile from 1970 to 1973 and the vicious military coup of Augusto Pinochet loom large.
In the play, letters and a family diary are central to telling the story of the Trueba family over four generations. Using these, Alba (Pia Laborde-Noguez) occupies her own room in the back corner of the stage and fulfills the role of narrator, occasionally joining the action in scenes where her character forms part of the tale. It’s a crucial mechanism for covering some of the more awkward details of the story and moving events on by simply stating what happened. Her grandfather, Esteban (Raul Fernandes), occupies the central role, which becomes a metaphor for male domination in the home, at work and in society. Fernandes occupies this position with a vehement sense of conviction and purpose while comfortably managing the man’s aging.
The many women, who are far from weak, have their rants against him and attempts at defying him, along with a couple men who also have confrontations.
Elena Sáenz as his sister, Ferula, summons up the powers of a condemnatory witch in a chilling denunciation of her brother who has separated her from the only love she knew and had found in her relationship with his wife, and banished her from the family home. Álvaro Ramos as Pedro Tercero doesn’t shy from forcefully expounding the revolutionary socialist dreams of the next generation, but Esteban reigns supreme until weakened by old age, infirmity, isolation and having to confront the horrors of a regime he had initially supported. By then, it is other men who wield power. The achievement of the women and progressives, however, battling against this ultra conservative, self-made, abusive employer and serial rapist, in their own worlds, is to demonstrate the damage such a man, and the many he symbolises, can do.
The time span and complexities of the story involve multiple scenes that often appear as hectic snippets, especially with a cast of twelve. Yet the achievement of this ensemble is to create tightly formed characters who change with the years and circumstances and with whose situations it is always possible to feel empathy. Alba’s forgiveness of her torturers brings a note of hope for the future and even inspires some sympathy for the reprehensible grandfather, now approaching death, whom she comforts to the end.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of mounting a production of this work is to convey that most Latin American literary mystery, magical realism. On the page the mind can wander and descriptions can create the fantastical. On stage it is a much harder challenge, but this production has elements that evoke a sense of it. Constanza Ruff, as Clara, deals the Tarot cards, has visions and ages wondrously. Yaiza Varona has created a haunting soundscape of whispering voices and murmurings that suggest this really is a house of spirits. Nigel A Lewis adds to the otherworldliness with startling effects splattered onto the backdrop of the simple yet versatile set by Alejandro Andújar, dominated by a cloth, with projected images of writing and the family portrait, interwoven into the action, and visuals courtesy of Enrique Muñoz. Costumes by Isabel de Moral are appropriately unobtrusive and meld into the rustic setting and correlate with specific references in the script.
It’s impossible to sit through this production without appreciating the timelessness of its content. There are surely moments that will personally touch everyone who sees it. Meanwhile, the arguments, the fights, the pursuit of freedom within the family and wider society, the right wing/left wing rivalry, the rich versus the poor, the denigration of women and the exercise and abuse of power and the brutality of regimes are all to be found in this play as universal themes.