This is the story of one show and two contexts. It is about how theatre can mean different things to different people and how those meanings change in response to politics, place and the daily news.
The first context was my own. It was January 2020 and I had been invited to write about the Santiago a Mil International Festival for The Guardian newspaper. This was my first time in Chile and I had a lot to take in. From the landscape to the language, everything was new. Watching two or three plays a day, I was an interested outsider.
Trewa (Photo: Danilo Espinoza Guerra)
One of the productions I was scheduled to see was called Trewa, staged by KIMVN Teatro, a name that comes from the Mapuche word for "knowledge". A few hours before it began, I went with another journalist to La Chascona, a house built by the poet Pablo Neruda. By the time we had finished our tour, I had only half an hour to get to the theatre. Luckily, I was able to hail a taxi. Less luckily, the driver had ideas of his own.
Initially, everything went well on the 8km journey. Although he spoke little English and I spoke no Spanish, we managed to have a friendly chat about my family in Scotland and his in Chile. As we drove, he explained to me that because of protests blocking the streets, he would have to take the motorway that cuts through the city, a detail that was of no concern to me. When we arrived at the theatre, however, he had a surprise in store.
Keeping an eye on the meter, I expected a fare of 12,000 pesos (~HK$128), which was reasonable for the journey time. Instead, the driver demanded 59,000 pesos (~HK$631). When I protested at being charged five times too much, he said he'd had to pay a toll on our motorway diversion.
I was pretty sure he was lying and, in any case, I didn't have that much money with me. But time was tight and I was unable to argue in Spanish. I did have a similar amount of US dollars in my wallet in case of emergencies. Perhaps this was just such an emergency. I handed over the cash and got out.
A few minutes later, I was sitting down to watch Trewa, feeling rattled by my rush to the theatre and angry at being ripped off. I was also hungry, having had no time to eat. So when I became impatient with the play, which seemed to have a meandering structure and several false endings, was I exercising proper critical judgement or was I just an ignorant outsider who was rattled, angry and hungry?
Those doubts were amplified at the end of the show. I had never seen a curtain call like it. The audience were not just applauding, they were up on their feet and chanting. "Libertad," they shouted in unison, calling out the Spanish word for "liberty". This was not the knee-jerk ovation you see in western commercial theatre but a genuine expression of engagement.
In the face of such passion, my private thoughts about Trewa seemed to miss the point. Where I was looking for a well-made play, one that made its arguments in a dramaturgically satisfying way, the audience were seeking an expression of their own political reality. The finer points of narrative structure were far less concerning to them than hearing in public something that needed to be said.
And this is the second context—a context I had to work hard to understand. Set in a Mapuche community, Trewa was a response to the suspicious death of environmental activist Macarena Valdés in 2016 and the police shooting of teenager Brandon Hernández Huentecol the same year. They were just the headline cases in a catalogue of injustices suffered by the indigenous people ever since the 16th-century Spanish conquest. With their history of suppression, the Mapuche actors made a political statement simply by being on stage. That they also told the story of a David-and-Goliath struggle only intensified the power of the performance for that audience.
Back in January 2020, there was another dimension. Three months before I arrived, the people of Santiago had taken to the streets in protest at everything from an out-of-touch president to inadequate private pensions and police violence. Having shut down a key metro station and covered the city centre in graffiti, they had continued to protest every weekend.
Protest graffiti in Santiago (Photo: Mark Fisher)
The spirit of a popular revolt was in the air. Trewa gave voice to the oppression people were complaining about on the streets. In a different time or a different place, it would have had a different impact, but watching the audience on that hot January evening, I was left in little doubt about how eloquently the show spoke in the here and now. My bad mood was irrelevant and my theatrical analysis, even if correct, was of little concern.
This is an extreme example—a city in revolt coupled with a polemical drama—but every performance has the potential to capture the public mood. It is the reason I find writing about theatre endlessly interesting. As a critic, I am not just recording the movement of the actors and the thoughts of the playwright. I am also writing about the world we live in. As the world changes, so the meanings on stage change.
These meanings are frequently out of the control of the artists. In the early days of the UK's lockdown, for example, there was an online reading of A Separate Peace, a 1969 television play by Tom Stoppard. Writing in The Guardian, the critic Mark Lawson described how a 50-year-old script had accidentally became topical because of its parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic. "Themes of isolation, medical bafflement, mental illness and the legacy in England of the Second World War… gain a coronavirus kick," he wrote.
The Remote Read: A Separate Peace (online photo)
None of that can have been the playwright's intention, but it was no less resonant for the critic. This raises an interesting question. On one hand, at moments of social upheaval, whether it be Brexit in the UK, Donald Trump in the US or pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, it is impossible for critics not to see their world reflected on stage. Audiences see it too. If theatre told us nothing about how we live today, we would quickly lose interest and do something else. It makes sense, then, for critics to write about those topical echoes.
On the other hand, it is also the job of the critic to focus on "timeless" qualities such as the skills of the actors, the choices of the director, the colour palette of the designer and the deeper themes of the playwright. Indeed, a certain strand of academic criticism would prefer a distant analysis to the partial tone of a critic immersed in the moment.
The ideal is probably somewhere between the two. None of us can extract ourselves from the world we live in. Even if objectivity were possible, it would be misleading to pretend the theatrical event was unaffected by our life and times. Theatre is a present-tense medium and it is logical to write in the same blink-and-you-miss-it spirit.
At the same time, not every play in 2021 has to be about the loneliness of coronavirus lockdown any more than every play in 2011 had to be about the Arab Spring. Some plays are topical, others are not. The critic should not impose connections were none exist, nor should they let their personal preoccupations blind them to what is actually happening before them. They should have the sensitivity to distinguish between the irrelevant and the relevant, to dismiss, in my case, the anger and hunger, and to embrace the special intensity of an audience rising as one.