Villa & Discurso

Guillermo Calderón's rumination on a damaged Chile feels familiar in post-conflict Belfast

'I’d create a fake oldness, I’d paint the walls with muddy water, with another palette of colours in the background. Tones like sepia. And I’d buy all the paraphernalia. I’d buy a metal bed, I’d buy cables and sockets, I’d buy uniforms, I’d buy clothes with collars, I’d buy the smell of shit...'

These unattractive and slightly chilling cosmetic details form part of a possible plan for the future of the recently demolished Villa Grimaldi, an aptly named, unimaginably grim detention centre, in which countless Chilean political prisoners were raped, tortured and disappeared during the repressive 17-year regime of General Augusto Pinochet.

In his play Villa, the first performed piece in Prime Cut and The MAC’s Chilean Trilogy, writer Guillermo Calderón has captured with unerring, and unrelenting, detail a thorny debate raging amongst former internees, do-gooders, public funding bodies and politicians about how best to spend the vast sums of money being thrown at creating a new role for such places in a post-conflict society. Sounds familiar?

It would seem, at first glance, an unpromising subject for a play, but, through William Gregory’s rhythmic, poetic translation, Calderón cannily exploits the rich dramatic potential in those endlessly frustrating conversations and arguments, which swirl around in ever-decreasing circles until they disappear up their own rear ends.

Director Roísín McBrinn has worked closely with designer Ciaran Bagnall on staging, lighting and presentation, which cleverly echo that same circular, revolving – and ultimately fruitless – process. The audience are seated within a round, tiered set from where, like citizens in a forum, they observe, share and adjudicate on the options under discussion.

Three young women, Francisca (Bernadette Brown), Macarena (Pauline Hutton) and Carla (Amy Molloy), take their seats at a small round table, there to vote on what they perceive to be the most effective way of commemorating the place where they, and close members of their families, were subjected to untold physical, sexual and psychological abuse. But the voting proves inconclusive, with one bizarrely spoiled vote casting suspicion and rancour among the women.

While Chile may be geographically distant and, culturally, a world removed, the voices of three Northern Ireland actors, the subject under debate and the unresolved outcome combine to bring the issues right to our own doorstep. The Villa Grimaldi and its fall-out is not, of course, the Maze Prison, but it could very well be.

In style and verbal delivery, the respective performances reflect the nature of the options under consideration and the degree to which each character believes in them. Molloy postures and points and eyeballs her companions as she presents the case for a Disney-styled theme park, a rebuilt replica complete in every horrible detail.

Brown is harder-edged, more clinical, in her vision of a 21st century museum/arts centre/mediatech, encased in pristine white walls, where, at the click of an Apple Mac mouse, the sickening histories of every individual inmate can be accessed. There is acute poignancy in her suggestion of a section entitled 'The Road Not Taken', which would offer glimpses into unfulfilled possibilities for the thousands of lives destroyed and wiped out.

Hutton offers the simplest and, arguably, most effective solution. To do nothing; to allow the survivors to go there quietly, to plant trees and shrubs and lawns, to remember in their own way and allow others to take from it what they will. Her bravely minimal, truthful portrayal penetrates the skin and the psyche of the character, her face and actions showing the pain and strain of remembering things that she would far rather forget but cannot.

The second half of this intense evening is delivered by just one actor. Discurso is Calderón’s alternative version of the farewell speech of Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, when she resigned from office for the first time in 2010. (Bachelet was subsequently re-elected in March 2014.)

The piece is both a challenge and a gift, demanding total concentration, daring, virtuosity and the ability to engage an audience’s attention for well over an hour. Who else but Eleanor Methven could have pulled off the task with such charm and brio?

The former co-founder and co-artistic director of the much-loved Charabanc Theatre Company is now widely regarded as one of Ireland’s finest actors. She and McBrinn have been meticulous and forensic in their examination and reconstruction of Calderón’s sometimes angry, sometimes self-justifying, sometimes mischievous take on the thoughts and sentiments raging through Bachelet’s mind as she bids farewell to her people at the end of her term of office.

Under the glare of a single spotlight soaking into a blood red carpet, she ditches the official speech and descends from the podium into the audience. Methven presents a woman one would like to have as a friend – but not an enemy. No wonder the Chileans re-appointed her. She is fearless yet vulnerable, loving yet longing to be loved.

She is human and sardonic, lamenting the absence in her life of a man to screw in a lightbulb in his underwear. She comes among us, she says, in four roles: a woman, a doctor, a singer, a socialist. As the daughter of an airforce officer and a former political prisoner, she has seen the whole sorry story from both inside tracks; she has got her hands dirty; she has saved children; she has ordered deaths.

Methven hits all the targets, spot on. Her beady-eyed, beautifully nuanced performance will linger long and fondly in the hearts of its witnesses, as, indeed, will so many familiar elements in this closely focused, intelligently formed production.

Chilean Trilogy – Villa, Discurso and Tejas Verdes – runs in The MAC, Belfast until June 14. The three plays will be performed back to back on June 7 and 14.