Tanzi Libre, the first production to be staged at the Southwark Playhouse’s new venue near Elephant and Castle, is theatre as bloodsport in the truest sense. An update of Claire Luckham’s 1980 play, Trafford Tanzi, about a female wrestler growing up on the outskirts of Manchester, this version has been revised, revamped and given a resolutely Mexican, Lucha Libre twist. Unfortunately, all these feel as garnish to what is, essentially, a bit of a hulk of a play.
Tanzi Libre is staged entirely in a wrestling ring, which suits the Playhouse’s in-the-round space perfectly. The action opens with ref and announcer (Mark Rice-Oxley) promising the ‘fight of the decade’ between current ladies’ wrestling champion, Tanzi Libre (Olivia Onyehara), and her no-good pro-wrestler husband, Dean Rebel (Kazeem Tosin Amore), in a no-holds-barred man-on-woman fight to the finish.
Before the matrimonial showdown can get started though, we see Tanzi’s life played out in the ring through a series of imagined wrestling bouts. She comes on as a baby, for instance, padding around in a nappy before getting choke-slammed by her mum for not being a boy; then she gets picked on at school, thrown into the ropes and pile-drived for not fitting in; then it’s her parents bashing her about; then her careers advisor and so on and so forth until the bell rings and we’re on to the next set piece. It’s a conceit that works well enough initially, but soon wears thin because, as a dramatic mode, it is both incredibly limited and limiting, reducing any created tension or conflict to plain old fisticuffs. We watch, for a full hour and 45 minutes, the main character get the shit kicked out of her. One gets the impression Tanzi Libre fancies itself as pro woman grotesque, but it’s about as subtle as being battered around the head by someone in a wrestling mask screaming “This is a feminist play! This is a feminist play!” over and over again.
Of course this is missing the point. Tanzi Libre is a bit of fun; it’s a pantomime to kick off the new season, full of audience participation, brightly-coloured costumes, broad gags and booed and braying chants. But it never quite managed to take the auditorium with it the time I saw it, and for that I blame the meek Tuesday night audience – a guilty observation seemingly noted by everyone else as, come the interval, we all flooded out to arrange ourselves in lines five thick at the bar. When everyone returned, suitably lubricated, energy levels finally picked up, as the audience put more and more of its faith in the performers.
Which brings us on to the cast, who are uncontestably the shining lights of the production. Characterisation was admittedly slender, and a handful of notes during some of the musical numbers seemed a little slippery – if not downright elusive – but the physicality of the wrestling moves more than recompensed. The cast has been trained by Ben Bodecker at the London School of Lucha Libre, and he has done a brilliant job. People are picked up, thrown about and then slammed onto the canvass with such unflinching temerity that I was convinced at any moment one of the cast was going to plant their foot wrong and tear a cruciate ligament – it was bloody excruciating.
Though there is fun to be had at Tanzi Libre, and it is certainly unusual evening at the theatre, my feeling is that it is not quite the knockout the Playhouse’s artistic director, Chris Smyrnios, was hoping for.