'A Fight Against... (Una Lucha Contra)' review — a quintet of sketches explore a violent world
Has lighting struck twice? Not entirely, though that's not necessarily meant as a demerit. In 1991, the Royal Court's studio-sized Theatre Upstairs premiered a play by the Argentina-born writer Ariel Dorfman called Death and the Maiden that went on to an extended life on the West End and a Broadway perch and film version beyond. And this season finds the same venue proffering a Chilean playwright, Pablo Manzi, with a new play in translation that has notable affinities with Dorfman's work from 30 years before.
Una Lucha Contra - or, in English, A Fight Against - marks the English-language debut of Manzi, in a translation by William Gregory who has previously navigated the Latin American repertoire at this most international-minded of playhouses. And if this more piecemeal drama looks unlikely to go the distance travelled by Dorfman's distilled three-hander, its comparable interest in our innate capacity for violence deserves attention. Indeed, any of the five entirely separate scenes contained within this short (75-minute) might itself benefit from expansion: you come away feeling like you've seen some great synopses and are now ready for the full-fledged work itself.
A sequence of sketches, Manzi's play is in essence a series of violence-charged encounters, or situations, spanning time and place. The first occurs in a Chilean apartment in 2014 and reports a conversation in which a teacher, Carla (Jimena Larraguivel), reports to her partner, Alejandro, a fellow academic, about an attack she sustained at school. Initially reluctant to provide details, Carla gradually reveals the full extent of an escalating act of aggression which Alejandro, in an aggressive manner of his own, is pressing her to explicate. (Whatever she says seems to draw ever more insistent questions, as if his curiosity represented its own kind of onslaught.) The scene ends with the couple (and their unseen baby) apparently newly conjoined, but not before Alejandro lays bare a lie that makes you wonder what the sequel to a snapshot of two lives that is over just as it is getting started.
From there, we're off to the Trump heartland of rural America in 2019 and then the Chile/Peru border in 1998, with a historical diversion to 19th-century Mexico and a four-way encounter that brings with it extended discussion of men hanging from trees and the efficacy of chopping off fingers. ("Oh," comes one person's report, "that made me squirm.") The self-evident point is a desensitisation to violence couched with language that sounds deliberately modern-day - communities, for instance, turned into bloodthirsty hordes. A hangman (Sebastian Orozco) expresses remorse for his actions only to be informed prophetically of a time when his employment won't be necessary: people will no longer look outwards for someone to do their dirty work when they are more than capable of doing it themselves. There's a sentiment worth bearing in mind during this week's anniversary of the storming of the American Capitol.
Each vignette is preceded by the relevant place and date scrawled for informational purposes on a chalkboard as director Sam Pritchard's fine six-person cast recombine in varying configurations to enact one or another commentary on brutality as a constant then and now. (That, in itself, could be said to be a Royal Court thematic extending back to such totemic plays at this address as Blasted and Saved.)
The last scene, set outside a Peruvian nightclub in 2017, starts with a tearful security guard (Joseph Balderrama, seen as Alejandro in the opening couplet) who has been kicked in the head and is trying to stop a drunken Chilean woman (Pia Laborde-Noguez) from re-entering the venue where she has had a cataclysmic experience all her own. The world is at war, we soon realise, within or without the doors of the club, and is even seen, in a feral closing image, to exist as an "inferno" inside someone's mouth. Manzi's cautionary quintet aren't all of equal interest, and the narrative compression is sometimes too much. But there's no denying that you exit the theatre suppressing a shudder, aware that danger risks shadowing any of us all the way home.
Photo credit: Pía Laborde-Noguez, Eduardo Arcelus, Jimena Larraguivel, Joseph Balderrama (Photo by Tristram Kenton)
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