By Ana Diosdado
Directed by Sam Walters
Venue: Orange Tree Theatre
Date: Thursday 20th September 2012
This is a play by a female Spanish writer, written and produced during the tail end of Franco’s repressive regime and looking at general themes of that period. Such is the nature of life that those themes are also relevant today, which is why Sam Walters decided to give it this UK premier.
The set consisted of a table and two chairs in the middle of the stage, covered with newspaper and magazine cuttings. I don’t mean there were a lot of cuttings sitting on these items of furniture, I mean the cuttings had been stuck on every surface of the table and chairs to create a colourful jumbled collage, with some specifically worded strips of paper on the table top – “Who is Susi Roman?” for example. The table also had a fake typewriter and old-style cassette player which were simply boxes in the appropriate shape covered with a picture of the object. The black telephone was real and there was a black mat under the table.
On each side of the balcony was a large screen with a black and white picture of a beautiful woman, scantily clad but not actually revealing too much. The slogan ‘SHE is yours for the asking’ was on each picture. As there was no obvious sign of what was being advertised, these pictures emphasised for me that this kind of advertising is about selling the woman, not the product. The word “SABO” was discreetly placed in a corner of each advert and we learned in the post-show that this was the name of the laboratory mentioned in the play.
The story unfolded in interwoven snippets with some longer scenes in between. It became clear early on that suicide was a likely ending, but they kept the detail of who had done it well hidden till the end, although I’d guessed beforehand (I’ve watched too many crime dramas). A journalist, Juan, returned from a week-long stay with a young model whose face (and body) had become the logo of a perfume campaign. When some bad publicity emerged about the laboratory which made the perfume she became the scapegoat in the public’s mind, and with so many people hounding her, the journalist was surprised to find her granting him an interview. She needed to talk to someone, and despite the unpromising start – he was stuck in the lift for a while – he got the interview of a lifetime. The play began with him arriving home to write the article, and ended after a reprise of that scene and a finishing speech from the coroner.
The other characters involved were the journalist’s wife, the photographer who went with him to take pictures for the article, and several Everymen, all played by one actor. These characters included the coroner, a porter, a neighbour who came to help when the lift was stuck, etc., and they often used similar language when talking to the model to show the massed ranks of hostility she faced from the general public.
The performances were all excellent and believable, and it was remarkably easy to follow the story as it slipped from present to past and location to location. The way these changes were staged was amazingly simple and effective. To represent Juan being stuck in the lift the actor crept under the table (hence the mat). When Susi was doing her dancing routine at the nightclub, she stood on the table and danced while the lighting indicated the location and the music was played very loud. In general, characters simply stood or sat in a location and sound effects indicated what was happening. So when Juan sat at the typewriter, the sound of keys being hit was played but his hands didn’t move. This was both effective and practical; he didn’t have to pretend to type and the sound could be lowered when it might get in the way of the dialogue – the scenes often overlapped. To show someone arriving they would stand at the ‘door’, the lights would change with the sound of the door opening, they would step through and then we would hear the door closing. Likewise people would stand to one side of the set and some music would start, so we knew where the record player was.
It might sound cumbersome as I describe it, but these were straightforward effects which allowed us to engage our imaginations and participate more fully with the story; from the post-show feedback this recognition of the audience’s intelligence was greatly appreciated. It turned out the clippings stuck all over the table related to the story as well. While Juan was ‘interviewing’ Susi in her bed, Manny, the photographer, had been investigating the health scare which had triggered Susi’s fall from grace. He’d discovered some interesting facts which suggested that the laboratory had engineered her fame in order to divert attention from their role in the health scandal, and that they’d done this several times before to deflect bad publicity. The clippings he brought to show them were the ones on the table – a nice touch. The article which Juan wrote included this damning information, but for political reasons it was never published, reflecting the way Franco’s regime squashed any suggestion of social problems like suicide or corrupt companies.
They told the story much better than I have, and the characters were sympathetically drawn. It’s an impressive piece of work, not least because of the difficulties faced by women dramatists in Spain at that time, and to air these themes at all must have taken courage. Sometimes plays written under repressive regimes seen a bit tame to us now, as we’re used to relatively open media and creative arts; this one was just as moving and challenging as if it had been written here instead.
The post-show covered a range of questions. I asked about the staging choices, whether they were derived from Spanish theatre or had been created here. They were all practical choices which came out of the rehearsal process, and once they realised that they didn’t need a literal typewriter or recorder, they pretty much got rid of anything that wasn’t essential. Only the table, chairs and telephone were left; they didn’t even have drinks in their glasses, although there was a sandwich on the plate during the bedroom scene. We liked this a lot, and there seemed to be general agreement that theatre doesn’t need as much realism as TV or film. We’d missed a couple of productions here for various reasons, and it was good to see such a strong performance on our return.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me