Alejandra and Marcela want to change the world. Biding their time inside a safe house on a residential street, the skittish young anarchists await the arrival of Jose Miguel – a veteran, revolutionary Marxist bearing gift-wrapped explosives under the guise of a birthday party invitation. In Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón’s absurd and searching new play for the Royal Court – developed in collaboration with the theatre’s International Department – bloodless, utopian activism clashes with brutal, revolutionary violence in a production that pits two generations of leftist radicalism against each other.
Calderón’s penchant for metaphor imbues B with a tantalisingly ambiguous quality. Sam Pritchard’s staging locates the action within an abstracted space, a space in which the minutiae of time and place remains eerily non-specific. Designer Chloe Lamford’s bare-bones domestic interior, comprised of precarious plywood walls, a few chairs and black balloons, eschews any attempt to render the background too explicit or clear-cut. While the tone of the conversations resemble the here and now, Calderón’s writing invites us to fill in the blanks. While Chile’s own turbulent history of political upheaval and agitational struggle under the Pinochet regime lurk conspicuously in the background, so to does the recent spate of bombings and attacks that continue to fill up our own headlines and television screens.
Calderón pits the ideologies of a divided leftist movement against each other. Over the play’s modest ninety-minutes, youth in revolt does battle with seasoned militant tendencies. While Alejandra (Danusia Samal) and Marcela (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) want to smash some glass and make a noisy protest, Jose Miguel (Paul Kaye) has other ideas, choosing instead the more brutal path of nail bombs, human casualties and incitement to full blown class-war. Calderón’s writing is needle-sharp when it comes to skewering these mythologies, revealing as it does the anger and loneliness at the core of these characters’ existence, and the desperate grasping for a collective purpose. It’s also menacingly funny. Sarah Niles delivers a playful performance as the intrusive neighbour, Carmen, whose pushy attempts to ingratiate herself with Alejandra and Marcela introduces a touch of comic jeopardy to proceedings. It’s a shame when the play’s dramatic engine begins to stall at the halfway point and the philosophical digressions become ponderous rather than compelling.
Still, Calderón dialogue buzzes with a mercurial, live-wire energy. There are moments throughout that feel redolent of Churchill and Pinter, most notably in the play’s relentless verbal sparring and surreal rhetorical flourishes. ‘Bomb’ is a forbidden word, and so Jose Miguel’s explosive gift becomes ‘cheese’ and ‘cow’, with the characters’ non-stop tête-à-tête about whether to detonate the device or not becoming an absurd cacophony of mixed messages and high-octane gibberish. Meanwhile, William Gregory’s translation preserves Calderón’s masterful blend of the grotesque and absurd, as well as his sudden shifts in tempo. Gregory does an excellent job of distilling Calderón’s pungent stream of imagery into a sequence of tightly-wrought, clipped bursts of speech, while also allowing plenty of room for the freewheeling monologues that spill out in a torrent of fury in the play’s latter half.
While Calderón doesn’t quite manage to deliver on the payoff promised by the play’s suspenseful atmosphere, B is smart, stylish and brimming with verbal energy: a flawed but compelling blend of thought-experiment, absurd humour and polemical insight.
B is at the Royal Court until October 21st. For more details, click here.