Almost 25 years after the end of Pinochet’s regime, the 10 pesos coin proclaiming the day he came into power to be a symbol of liberty, is still in circulation. That, together with some basic history that, given the UK’s sympathy for the dictator everyone must know (right?) is probably enough to uncover the context of Chile: a place with a history superficially known to most, but a country that hasn’t necessarily decided what its past is.
That is at least the context of Lola Arias’ The year I was born, a piece that brings together 9 children of Pinochet’s Chile from different sides of the ideological battle. Some spent their childhood in exile with their left-activist parents, racking up passports and an array of native languages; others were in their home country, sheltered by their Pinochet-supporting military and police families. Then there’s the group that, while a minority on stage, was probably the majority in Chile: those whose parents were ordinary folk, with political beliefs but no political affiliations, getting by in a ruthlessly dangerous country. There is little indication as to what these kids – born between the early 70’s and the late 80’s – grew up to be; Arias dedicates the whole performance to the stories of their parents and the facts of their life under a dictatorship.
In doing that she makes a clear statement on where Chile might be in the present, with grown up children still primarily determined by their parents’ past actions and a history not dealt with. As these children tell the tales of their parents lives via photos, letters, other documentary material and an occasional reconstruction, it becomes clear the historical divisions are still relevant. Former exile-kids marry other former exile-kids; the silent conflict between those whose families were made to flea and those whose families stayed is palpable. Once in a while the performers attempt to stand in a line based on how wealthy their parents where, or where they stood on the ideological spectrum and in those moments everything is relativised. An actor who grew up with a passionately right wing, perpetually unemployed father and a working class Allende supporting mother, protests that he is being punished on bourgeoisie grounds; those with policemen and military officers in their family tree attempt to negotiate whose father did worse things. The fact the line is still formed on ancestry terms frustrates some, but surprises no one – and those proud of their parents (often tragic) tales accept living off others’ ideals as a compensation for shattered, nomadic childhoods and lost parents.
Arias managed to find a truly diverse group of professional actors and amateurs alike, offering up a good sample of Chile’s kids. Those happy to confess their parents’ sins are still hard to find perhaps, but the most striking stories in this performance come from mundanity, families with no heroes or villains, whose experience is often oppressed in the good guy-bad guy dichotomy. The show’s weak point is a formulaic staging: Arias dedicates a lot of time to showing things (documents, photos, newspapers), neglecting to realise her concept is more powerful when it gives space to the cast or the reenactments. The director previously devised another show, My Life After (reviewed here), applying the same pattern to the children of the Argentine military regime. The two productions look so similar it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suggest The year I was born took more than the basic idea from its predecessor, a notion with some not too pleasant implications for Arias’ thinking on form deriving from content. After all, every unhappy country is unhappy in its own way and theatre can’t fully claim to be contextual if it transposes one show’s formal decisions to another. The feeling of mismatch will inevitably rear its head.
Formal issues aside, The year I was born is still an important testimony of a whole generation, if not two, grown into a world that repossess their right to personal identity, burdens them with their parents’ and protests every time they attempt to break free. As if to prove that point, the performance ends in one of the actors confessing her mother ceased all communication as a result of her involvement in this show – so much for truth and reconciliation.