Tuesday, 21 August 2012

EIF 2012 – Villa+Discurso, or, A Glass Half Full Evening

The first half of this evening's double bill is an excellent piece of theatre. Three women debate what should be done with the villa of the title where torturing and killing took place under the Pinochet dictatorship. Certain aspects of the piece could so easily lead it into the kind of desiccated territory inhabited by some of the deconstructionist theatre showcased elsewhere in this year's festival – most notably the fact that the three characters are to an extent denied individuality. They are all called Alejandra, what backstory we do learn about them (up until the final moments) is often subsequently called into question. But their doubtful characters, the question mark over their individuality does not end up lessening their humanity and crucially does not stop them from engaging the audience's emotions – or at least did not prevent my emotions from being engaged.

The play is also concerned with a large theme – how do you come to terms with this legacy of torture, of death. But it doesn't get sunk by that theme – rather it is by turns both solemn and playful. There are several set pieces of real poetry as the women defend particular positions – should the Villa be re-created exactly as it was, should it be turned into a museum? But there is also a wonderful self mocking section which points out that everybody who comes there will interpret it differently – laugh at it, cry etc. It's also a gentle mockery of writing a play about it but done with a wit that similar interludes such as Marthaler's completely lacked.

Above all, the play is a reminder that even with this awful legacy so forcefully before them humans do not necessarily become better people. The three women are met in committee because the larger group in charge of the project have failed to reach agreement. Pretty soon these three are also at daggers drawn, there are unpleasant attempts at manipulation, even momentary flare ups of violence. The gulf between the women and the world whose remembrance they are grappling with proves not to be as wide as one might wish to imagine.

The segue from Villa to Discurso is also a neat move since the latter is an imagined retirement speech for the Chilean President Michelle Bachelet who had suffered from the human rights violations of the dictatorship. Sadly Discurso doesn't reach the same high points as Villa. There are flashes of the poetry and humour of the first piece, but Discurso is essentially a monologue (albeit delivered by four actors – the addition of the older Sonia Mena to the mix is a bit puzzling) which, as the playwright admits in the programme note is what he wishes Bachelet had said upon her retirement. Like most political speeches one increasingly wanted the other side to the various statements made. Whereas in Villa every point is open to challenge, here the President can simply ramble on. During Discurso I fear I did lose interest and at points become irritated.

But I was very glad to have seen Villa. It is a refreshing piece in a Festival drama programme that with the exception of Watt has placed far too much emphasis on theatre that has discarded narrative and character. It is also refreshing for being very simply staged and allowing the excellent acting to speak for itself. In short, simple is once again proved to be best. The Festival Theatre programme could benefit from inviting shows taking this kind of approach more often.

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