Political Theatre Not Only for Aniversary Purposes (Pararevolution in Latin America)
I walk out on the street and feel the icy July wind on my face. The winter in Buenos Aires is at its peak, same as the theatre season. Since my last visit everything seems to be back where it should. Playwrights and directors of independent Argentine theatre, ten years ago only just being discovered by local theatre critics, have returned from various journeys abroad. Those who created the movement of the so-called new Argentine theatre of the post-dictatorship era, and who have since the 1990's made their name on the local scene as well as brought attention to Argentine theatre all over the world, are slowly becoming classics. The cultural guides now as then offer – especially during weekends – hundreds of performances to be seen. Avenida Corrientes is still the luxuriously shiny neon jungle of Argentine commercial and musical theatre, National Cervantes Theatre is still fighting dilapidation, and a crumbling façade that does not hinder the children audience to have a great time during the afternoon Sunday performance of the legendary comic group Los Macocos with their parody of Don Quijote from the pampas; the city theatre General San Martin announces that its classic productions are already sold out. Nevertheless it is evident that the city is a decade older and tired from the economical crisis of the new millennium, which has brought high prices, crime and the homeless to the elegant Parisian-style boulevards.
The most international artist, who beats his Argentine colleagues especially with his activities outside of the Spanish-speaking world (he intensively collaborates with German theatre makers, mostly the Berlin Schaubühne), is probably Rafael Spregelburd. Spregelburd has up to now rejected any direct reflection of recent Argentine history, and in his texts and reflections he has refused the ability of the theatre to pass over any kind of message. When politics do not represent anybody, neither can theatre.
Argentine reality is however treated by two of Spregelburd's plays, which assume a peculiar position among his other work. Scratching the Cross (1996) takes place right before the beginning of World War 2 (after the occupation and right before the invasion of the German army into Poland) in Prague. Spregelburd wrote the play under the impression and with the experience of his first visit to Prague, however, his topic is the evil done to Argentine society in the era of president Carlos Menema (1989-1999). In that period not only the investigation of the crimes of the military junta was stopped but also neoliberal economical reforms were put into practice that led to the economical crisis of 2002. In 2002 during his residential stay at the London Royal Court Theatre, Spregelburd wrote the play The Argentine Moment – a direct reaction to the Argentine economical crisis. It captures the atmosphere of the street demonstrations of that time (e.g. cacerolazo, which is the typical South American form of protest, characteristic in that people drum pots and pans), Spregelburd makes fun of the leftovers of dictatorship, the agony of the Menema era as well as the (not only) Argentine version of neoliberalism. The result is a grotesque pun taking place during a party hosted by a family of former militaries, comfortably living in the neodemocratic regime, until their daughter takes to the revolution and as a protest against the political situation brings home a bomb.
Apolita, two hundred years and several months
photo Ale Star
The latest Spregelburd production Apolita, two hundred years and several months (Todo – Apátrida, doscientos años y unos meses – Envidia) is innovative in the context of his work for two reasons: the Sprechoper form is unusual as is the reconstruction of an episode from the deeper Argentine past. The author draws from the disputation of the Argentine painter Eduard Schiaffino with Eugenio Auzón, the critic of Spanish origin, which took place in the Argentine newspapers in 1891, and ended with a duel of the two opponents, in which the critic injured Schiaffino on his right hand. The whole dispute started after Auzón had in 1891 visited the Arts exhibition in Buenos Aires, which aimed at the constitution of a national Argentine art. After visiting the exhibition, Auzón scorched it in the papers with the memorable phrase: “Argentine art will start to exist in two hundred years and several months.” Schiaffino objected to it as an artist as well as a future politician, apart from other things also the founder of the Argentine Museum of Fine Arts. Spregelburd himself demonstrates whose side he takes with a bitter phrase, saying that at least one half-forgotten street in Buenos Aires bears Schiaffino's name today, whereas Auzón will never be celebrated by either of his homelands.
In the preface to the play the author states that he himself has several times acted as the “unwanted ambassador” of Argentine art abroad. In the play as such he asks what Argentine art is. The main thesis of the play is represented by a phrase saying that a nation is not constituted only by the history of its “wars and victories, its successes and resignations, its crimes and miracles, its language and dialects, but also by the history of its fictions”. The production, directed by Spregelburd himself (he is also the sole actor of the production, backed up by DJ Zypce who takes care of the music and sound engineering), brings together the world of politics and art by using simple stage design elements. Two music stands represent two lecterns between which the actor moves back and forth, and presents the arguments of both disunited sides. Close to them is a space provided for the musician who is surrounded by high-tech as well as primitive gadgets that help to create the music background of the production. The play is divided into five scenes: The opening of the exhibition, Audioguide, The attack, Discussion and defence, The Duel. Most of the text is made up of press excerpts of the period, picked and adjusted by Spregelburd. His own contribution is most apparent in the passage called Audioguide. The author created a parody of the smart gadget that is the integral equipment not only of the visitors of galleries and museums but also of touristically attractive places. Here it serves as the guide to the exhibition. The listeners are confronted with a labyrinth of mutually unconnected fragments such as names, titles of artworks; dates and other information that put together do not make any sense. Onstage a resigned actor and a musician, who only mechanically press buttons of transportable record players, which keep pouring out this useless information, interpret this passage. It serves as counterpoint to the fiery and temperamental speeches that make up most of the production. The whole sound accompaniment in parody mixes old tangos, classical music and contemporary pop hits such as the remake of the song We No Speak Americano by Yolando Be Cool & Dcup (the author of the original version is Renato Carosone), to which both the protagonists dance in the end. One of the comic peaks of the production is without a doubt the moment when president Roque Sáenz Peña Lahitte speaks through a loud speaker of a cell phone. Lahitte was in office from 1910-1914, and he pushed through democratic reforms of the Argentine electoral system: we hear his speech from before he was elected president.
The production itself is almost free of the visual illustration of the period theme, the artists use only a screening of wood and marshes motive that probably – and again in an ironic manner – refers to the essay Civilization and Barbarism by Domingo F. Sarmienta (1811-1888) who contributed to the discourse on Argentine identity in the romantic period. Other historical events are evoked barely by sound.
Some reviews label Apolita a radio play; others concentrate on the original project that was created as part of the celebrations of the Argentine Bicentenario (the two-hundredth anniversary of the May revolution during which the Spanish rule was overthrown and Argentine became independent, which took place on May 25th, 2010). In Buenos Aires the production became an audience hit.
* The capital of Brazil is like a surreal island, situated on the plateau in the inland of Brazil (Goiás state). In 1960 president Juscelino Kubitschek – of Czech origin – came up with the project of new Brazilian identity, the symbol of which is the capital Brasilia. It has the shape of an airplane: in its fuselage we can find the central government offices and ministries as well as various monuments including the cathedral, the National museum, library and theatre. In the cockpit of the imaginary airplane the Congress building as well as the Palace of Justice are located. The edges of the fuselage are fringed by sectors designed for hotels, entertainment and shopping zones, the wings are the residential parts of the capital. The centre of Brasilia is an exception among Brazilian cities also thanks to its population – there are no slums, and thus no poor here. Brasilia is the only Brazilian city made up of incomers - it lacks its own accent and identity. That is why a lot of cultural projects originate here. One of them is the theatre festival Cena Contemporânea (The Contemporary Scene).
From the part of the program of the 13th year of the festival, which I had the chance to see, I found two productions of quite unknown groups the most interesting. It is telling that they came from Brazil and Mexico, the two nations that together with Argentine form the trio of cultural and theatre powers of Latin America and that in both cases these were groups working collectively. The main initiators of this theatrical current, which first appeared at the end of the 1960's, are Enrique Bonaventura and his Teatro Experimental de Cali and Santiago de García and his La Candelaria. These two men furnished this method of theatrical work with characteristic features such as political – especially leftist – engagement, in opposition to Latin American rightist dictators. Collective work became popular also because of the lack of texts of good quality that would reflect Latin American reality. Thus even Columbia and other countries experienced a boom of these collective-based groups - to give some examples we can name the Cuban Teatro Escambaray, the Venezuelan Rajatablas, the Mexican Teatro Campesino or the Peruvian theatre Yuyachkani – which are connected not only to the influences coming out of Europe or North America (Grotowski, Barba, Bread and Puppets) but also to the return and rediscovery of non-European (Native American and African) roots of Latin American theatricality. Collectivity is typical for the art, organization as well as the political decisions of these groups. Today, another generation of Latin American artists picks up the threads of their work.
Luís Antônio Gabriela
photo Bob Sousa
In the production of the Mungunzá group Luís Antônio Gabriela the director Nelson Baskerville drew from his own family history. Baskerville's mother died while giving him birth, his father remarried, and his new wife brought her own children into the family. The oldest, somehow adopted by Baskerville's stepmother, was named Luís Antônio. Luís's homosexuality was hard to accept for the conservative family where the father practiced strict discipline and physical punishment, moreover at the time of the military coup d´état in 1964 that was followed by the adoption of the Ato Institucional Número 5 in 1968. This Act established a strict repressive regime not only against the political opponents but also against homosexuals in Brazil. The family rejected Luís Antônio who left for Spain where he changed his identity to that of Gabriela, and became a favourite nightclub star in the Basque city of Bilbao. The family cut off all communication with him for thirty years up till 2006 when its members found out that Luís Antônio was dying of AIDS.
Baskerville's production is an open testimony of family traumas, including his own one: Luís Antônio sexually abused him when he was still a child. The director admits that the production had a therapeutic effect on him. Onstage family 'dirty laundry' is being washed and tellingly the only costume the half-naked characters wear is underwear. From the beginning the actors keep a distance from the characters they enact, they introduce themselves with their civilian names, while stating one or more roles that they are going to play. The production combines dance, live music and video screening of documentary material about Luís Antônio, and it uses scoreboards to screen subtitles or choruses. One of them returns as an inscription on a blown up balloon, probably representing the main character's soul, and as part of the text of the main song: “I was born in the wrong body.” The whole stage is filled with hanging drip bags that can be interpreted as symbols of medicine for the diseases of the individual as well as of the whole society but also – judging from their yellowish colour – as a life-giving blood serum. An important visual element is provided by the letters and postcards that Luís Antônio received from his siblings: they serve as props and we also see them on the projection screen. (This technique resembles the recent stage document The Clouds of the Czech theatre group Handa Gote.) Apart from this the actors make do with few simple pieces of furniture – chairs used especially for collective choreography and musical numbers or carts and tables on wheels, which serve as the birthplace or the sickbed of Luís Antônio. The main narrative outline comprises of Luís Antônio´s – later Gabriela's - life story that is the gradual unveiling of his female soul imprisoned in a man's body. Little Nelson Baskerville's confession after his brother sexually abuses him is also an important passage. A female actress surprisingly plays Nelson's role – maybe because we rather associate the act of forgiveness, crucial to this personal confession, with a woman.
In the production an interesting detail is mentioned – in Portuguese the verb 'comer', which means 'to eat', is also used for having sex. Thus Luís Antônio symbolically devours his brother when he rapes him. Anthropophagy is quite important for Brazilian identity. Oswaldo de Andrade, the reformer of Brazilian theatre, in his Cannibalistic Manifesto (1928) refuses everything that represents the colonizing European culture: imported ideologies, religion, rationalism, and logic. He opposes the “Caribbean Revolution” to the French Revolution; he advocates the supernatural and anthropophagy as opposed to European colonialism and missionary truths. He celebrates the primitive man who listens to his instincts: sexual, emotional and anthropophagic. Andrade who wrote his manifest under the influence of the dada of André Breton and Francis Picabia, the creators of Manifeste Cannibale (1920), does not reject European culture as a whole. Not only the surrealists inspired him but also the leftist theories of Karl Marx, the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's natural man. Brazil's problem is that it absorbs all these influences en bloc. Maybe this context helps to explain why this production, working with the topic of homosexuality relatively common in global art today, became such an important event and manifestation of humanity for Brazilian cultural public. Moreover, in a country that we tend to see as exotic, and which we romantically associate with carnival exuberance full of travesty and transvestism.
Reviews liken the visually and musically rich production to Almodóvar's movies, and they predominantly praise the socio-political portrait of the times, in which open homosexuality was taken as a sign of political disobedience. The contemporary situation is also mentioned – some Brazilian churches, powerful movers of public opinion, condemn homosexuality as a disease, and they even provide medical 'help'. It is interesting that the audience tends to feel strong sympathy for the main character – the hero, fighting for his freedom – even though he sexually abused his brother. The topic of a strange and long hushed up violence and tension between solid rationality and dark undercurrents has already appeared in Brazilian theatre: for example in the work of one of the most appraised contemporary Brazilian playwrights and directors Roberto Alvim, who is often concerned with various crimes, deviations and deformations (the title of one of his thriller plays, inspired by 20th century history – The Big-toothed Vagina – is quite telling).
At the festival Baskerville together with his group presented an interesting synthesis of the legacy of two important currents of modern Brazilian theatre: the political theatre of the 1960's, represented mainly by Augusto Boal, and its antipole, that is the inward, intimate current that appears in the 1970's after the implementation of censorship and that is represented predominantly by female authors such as Consuelo de Castro, Leilah Assunção, Edla van Steen. Nelson Baskerville and the Mungunzá company associate their work with Brecht's political theatre as well as with post-dramatic techniques, and they are one of those groups that have already gained an international name such as Teatro da Vertigem with director Antônio Araújo (his work was presented among others in the Brazilian exposition of the Prague Quadrennial 2011, which received the main prize – The Golden three-horse carriage) or the Latão group, led by Sergio de Carvalho.
|The Cracking of the Fire|
The Mexican company Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol is the discovered talent of Latin American as well as some European festivals of 2012. In connection with the production called The Cracking of the Fire critics often mention the playfulness that the group used in treating a serious topic of the Mexican guerilla movements of the 1960's and 1970's in their stage document. However, it is the name of the group that is playful (in translation Lizards thrown into the sun) rather than the reasons that led the artists to engage in this topic. The dates, information, names, events and places that appear in the production are drawn together by the character of Margarita Urías Hermosillo, the Mexican historian and political activist, who joined the student movement in the mid-1960's. In 1967 she was imprisoned for five years and tortured. After she was released, she left the revolution movement, and that is why so many Mexicans got to know about her only thanks to the production. The artists' aim was to go against the stereotypical image of the (Mexican) hero, which ends with a martyr's death.
The members of the group graduated from their theatre studies at the most acknowledged Mexican university UNAM in 2003. This university was the centre of the 1968 student movement with the legacy of which today's generation has to come to terms. The questions concern not only the most striking massacre on Tlatelolco square on the 2nd of October, 1968, when ten days before the beginning of the Olympic Games, the Mexican army violently attacked the defenceless only verbally revolutionary students and state employees (who gathered to fulfil the slogan “We don't want the Olympics, we want revolution!”). The artists are however interested also in the more controversial aspects of the political struggle as carried out by the guerrilla movements, which formed in Mexico in the 1960's and 1970's shielded by various political and ideological slogans. “These movements can be divided into armed country and city movements. Whereas the country ones looked for solutions of specific problems caused by the social situation, in which they appeared, the city guerrillas aimed mainly for the overall transformation of the world,” we can read in the production program.
The production takes place in the allusion of an interior – either an ordinary or an interrogation room, according to the situation – in which scenes from the life of Margarita Urías Hermosillo are acted out. Two walls are replaced by projection screens. The room is enclosed by two other imaginary walls, hinted at by long tables, on which actors in a kind of children's play animate the models of planes, trucks, soldiers and guerilleros. Cameras transfer this action onto the projection screens. These shots are interspersed with documents of the time – photos, video recordings or testimonies of participants in the armed conflicts. In this way the production, for example, depicts the conflicts of the armed political groups with the Mexican army or the hijacking of an airplane on the Monterrey-Mexico City line on November 8th , 1972, carried out by the members of the Armed Communists' League, whose demands including their departure for Cuba had to be fulfilled by the Mexican government. Some critics are repelled exactly by this infantilization of a serious topic. One can of course oppose this critique by pointing to the naivist tradition in Mexican art. Moreover, the young Mexican artists do not play with the fire of political radicalism just for the game itself. “We feel quite bound by the generalizing opinion that the world is an absolute whole, and that only one system of political, social and cultural administration exists. What is more, a system that is very hard to criticize. Outrage, resistance, protest, opposition, revolt and revolution are presented as matters of the past. In our project we are in no way telling our audience to start an armed conflict. We attempt to renew utopias and the origin of thoughts which will enable us to imagine a fairer world.”
The premiere of the production took place symbolically at the UNAM, in the university theatre Foro Sor Juana de la Cruz, in the middle of the celebrations of the Mexican Bicentenaria – two hundred years from the beginning of the armed struggle for independence. The Mexican director Rubén Ortíz aptly commented on the context in his review: “…the self-important flatulence of the official pomp contrasted with the seriousness and sincerity of the theatrical act presented by Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol.”
It seems that stage documents and politics get the green light in contemporary – and not only Latin American – theatre.
Rafael Spregelburd: Apolita, two hundred years and several months (Apátrida, Doscientos Años y Unos Meses), dramaturgy and stage direction R. Spregelburd, music Zypce, stage design Julieta Álvarez, premiere March 20, 2011 in El Extranjero Theatre, Buenos Aires (Argentina)
Nelson Baskerville and Verônica Gentilin: Luis Antônio Gabriela, directed by Nelson Baskerville, music Gustavo Sarzi, stage design Nelson Baskerville and Marcos Felipe, Cia Mungunzá de Teatro, Sao Paulo (Brazil), premiere October 7, 2011
Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol: The Cracking of the Fire (El Rumor del Incendio), dramaturgy and stage direction Francisco Barreiro, Luisa Pardo and Gabino Rodríguez, stage design Juan Leduc, video Yulene Olaizola, Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol, Mexico City (Mexico), premiere September 2, 2010
english version of the article from Svět a divadlo magazine, issue 2, volume 2013
translated by Ester Žantovská