There are many ways to impress a vegetarian theatre critic. Dropping a half-eaten hot dog into her lap midway through the performance is not one of them. The hotdog -which I glared in a manner not dissimilar to the way Maggie Thatcher looked at that model Concorde before dropping a hankie over the offending tailfin – was probably the low point of the production and, sans hankie, I quickly and prudishly removed it from my pale blue work skirt onto the (usefully provided) production notes sheet and then to the floor.
If, however, that was the low/gross part of 33, then the high point was probably the idea of the production itself. Instead of attempting to tell the authentic story of the Chilean miners’ experience stuck down a mine, they concentrated more on the story of their, and the western world’s, obsession with the story of the miners. In this sense, 33 is as much a story of the Wardrobe Ensemble’s preoccupation with this news event and – as explained in the introduction – the story of the ensemble itself, who formed around the time of the disaster and originally performed a short piece called Major/Miner. The honesty of the cast in stating the intention of the production is commendable and makes for a refreshing change after reading too many half-baked ‘insightful’ comments on Twitter, posted by those who believe they know exactly what it is like to evacuate a flaming plane after reading one report on it.
At times though, this same desire not to be overly concerned with authenticity resulted in some odd choices being made. The problem being that the mining disaster really did happen and the names of the miners are not simply characters invented by the ensemble, but those of – I presume – still living human beings. Therefore whilst it is acceptable to combine historic events with your own experience of them from afar, it is not so great to imbue living characters with attributes or experiences (again I presume) entirely of your own creation. I speak mainly of their desire to cast Edison Peña as an essentially mentally unstable individual who suffered from Elvis hallucinations whilst down in the mine. The idea of the Elvis seemingly came from a short clip taken from when Peña appeared on the David Letterman show and, in response to Letterman’s question about the miner’s amusing themselves by singing Elvis songs, gave an impromptu rendition of ‘Suspicious Minds’. Admittedly, this is behaviour not everyone would engage in and, additionally, Peña went on to visit Graceland, meet Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas and even have his wedding vows renewed by said Elvis impersonator. However, a little Elvis fandom and some mildly eccentric behaviour on Letterman does not mean a person has a recognizably loose grip on reality. It simply means you, like thousands of other people, like the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The real Edison Peña, as it happens, has actually had a rather tough time of things since being out of the mine and, apparently, now dislikes the whole Elvis shtick which has attached itself to his name. He, like all the miners, received little or no financial support from the mining company directly after the disaster and went through a psychologically ‘low’ point after the event – from which he has now recovered. I wonder what he would make of a performance touring round Edinburgh Festival that portrays him – using his real name – as a man with Elvis hallucinations who jogged around the mine, not to keep fit, but because he was losing his mind? I presume/hope that the cast has sought his permission…