Villa and Discurso – Chilean political drama in The MAC (27 May-14 June)

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Two great plays – Villa and Discurso – form part of a season of Chilean political drama at The MAC.

chile flag the mac chilogy imageSitting last night in an amphitheatre constructed in the upstairs venue, for ninety minutes the wraparound audience listened in to a discussion between three Chilean women who had been singled out to decide on how to transform the former Villa Grimaldi secret torture centre.

Villa begins with a vote and it quickly becomes apparent that there are no obvious answers to the question of what to do with the now-demolished site. What will be most powerful? Reconstruct the villa and recreate the atmosphere of the barbaric torture centre? Or build a “big white box of a museum” on the site?

The three actresses sit on swivel chairs around a table in the centre of the circular stage, arguing, debating, explaining, cajoling and pleading with each for support as they dream up imaginative suggestions for the site.

We can’t be frozen in time. We have to shed out skin and crawl out of our shells like snails and get new underwear!

Can torture, electrocution, violent rape and death ever be justifiably reduced to a series of sterile clicks on shiny computers within an even shinier museum? Is it human just to forget? To regret the past and suppress its story would surely have no justice and no consolation? But re-terrorising visitors cannot be part of remembering? How can a post-conflict society ever repay its debt to the past while looking forward?

Directed by Roisin McBrinn, actors Bernadette Brown, Pauline Hutton and Amy Molloy deliver captivating performances as each panel member weaves their contributions into the real-time discussion, spiralling around and swapping positions as readily as clothing accessories, interlacing their arguments together, yet pulling them apart with mistrust.

Sitting in Belfast watching the translated play, it was impossible not to transport the narrative to a victims forum subgroup sitting down to debate the future use of the Maze/Long Kesh site. There might be a lesson for Northern Ireland from Villa that it is only when the three panellists stop competing to win and finally open up to, become vulnerable and begin to understand each other that they have a chance of reaching consensus. Even then, each may value the solution for different reasons.

After a short interval we re-enter the theatre space through a different door, approaching the same amphitheatre from a new angle. The desk and chairs are gone, replaced with a red carpet and a lectern for the second play, Discurso.

Eleanor Methven playing Chilean President Michelle BachelotOut strides President Michelle Bachelet (played by Eleanor Methven) to deliver an imagined bitter-sweet farewell speech at the close of her 2006-2010 presidency of Chile. In a country that has transformed from socialism to a market economy (meaning that 10% of people were now out of jobs), she acknowledges that as the country’ figurehead she has “given them the true face of the left … a blend of naivety and optimism”.

Abandoning her prepared notes, the audience listen to the president’s off-the-cuff reflection on her journey through torture (“or not”) to power to change and now to “the centre of guilt”. She regrets much. As president, how could she tell the difference between corruption, political realism and mistakes? And are these questions a politician should ever articulate in public?

Unlike other people, power made me good. I could have crushed the torturers with one finger but I chose the smile and the embrace as a gift to history to prove that I was good and the others were the evil ones.

The monologue has moments of comedy, confusion, passion and anger. But the overall calmer, less energetic performance suits the late hour (the show finished last night at around 11pm) and gives space to piece together the different Chilean strands of history and application.

Both plays – and the performers – were enhanced by the circular set and seating, the simple but directional sound effects, and the incredibly precise lighting. At times, it felt like the artistic shadows deserved to be listed as cast members in the programme.

The audience were encouraged to stay behind after last night’s performances to discuss the plays. And further talks and events are planned throughout the rest of the run to explore the events in Chile and its post-conflict society.

The third play in the “Chilogy” series opens on 3 June. [Now reviewed.] Named after another Chilean detention centre, Tejas Verdes promises audiences “an immersive theatre experience” as they walk through the set tracing the life of a young woman who vanishes during the night in Santiago.

Three strong plays with five strong female actors covering topics of women’s role in post-conflict society, state brutality and memorials that should resonate with Northern Ireland audiences. All three plays are being performed in marathon back-to-back sessions on 7 and 14 June.

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