At the back of a bare stage, a pair of trousers lands in a crumpled heap. This is followed by a shirt, a jumper and then a brightly coloured deluge of jackets, tops, jeans, skirts and suits. Along with the downpour, a woman hits the piled clothing with a soft thud and greeted by the gentle ripple of our incredulous laughter.
This heap of history is the work of Argentinian writer and director Lola Arias, who first staged My Life After in Beunos Aires in 2009. Its appearance at the Brighton Dome at the tail end of this year’s Brighton Festival marks its premiere performance in the UK.
The piece pivots on the memories of six Argentinian actors of their very different sets of parents in the 1970s and early 80s. Coupled with live multimedia segments, the clothing becomes part of a personal, patchwork picture of a country where the everyday has shifted with the tectonic plates of revolution and constant political and social flux.
As the performers try on their mothers’ and fathers’ clothes and tell stories, the wider picture is tempered with the playfulness of the dressing-up box. Refreshingly, there’s no attempt at mimicry – Arias never lets the people on stage dissolve into superficial simulacra. Like photo-album faces, their parents are both near and far away.
Projected photos and amusingly stylised parting encounters filmed live on stage emphasise memory as a present state of constant rehearsal – the past as something to be tried on to see how it fits by people whose identities are rooted in it in ways that are simultaneously crucial and forever lost.
This finds its saddest expression in the contradictory stories related by one performer of how she was told her father – a sergeant in the People’s Revolutionary Army – had died. State-sanctioned or born out of grief and love, these narratives all lead to a mass grave and a DNA test. Silence follows.
The actors’ surtitled performances are low key and matter-of-fact. The cast inhabit scripted versions of themselves, but this isn’t a production obsessed with scuffing away the trail leading to the world beyond the stage. There’s the occasional technical hitch and – at one point – a particularly stubborn tortoise.
The piece’s ever-changing nature is brought home by one actor’s gripping revelation that its initial staging enabled her to create legal precedent in Argentina and testify against her father for his activities as a state intelligence officer, which included kidnapping her adoptive brother.
Some elements of the production strain too hard to create mood, including some hair-blown electric guitar interludes. And faux-spontaneous chats among the cast come across as clumsy attempts to shift the piece from one biographical snippet to the next, as part of a structure that feels rigidly and overly episodic at times.
But, overall, this is a powerfully different experience, uncompromising in its defiance of categorisation and the usual dramatic scaffolding built around personal narratives on stage. If you’re not quite sure what to make of it, that’s the point. Look out for it if it transfers elsewhere after Brighton.