Features Performance Published 8 September 2014

Montevideo: A Theatre Laboratory

Anthony Fletcher explores Montevideo's rich and varied theatre scene.
Anthony Fletcher

Gabriel Calderon’s Or

On any given weekend there are over 50 shows playing in the theatres of Montevideo. According to urban legend, the city has more theatres per head than Paris. The numbers are excessive, unsustainable, in a city of 1.5 million, of whom only a small percentage actually go to the theatre.

Hundreds of shows a year fade away without trace. But others survive and flourish. Some shows will run for years, touring all over the Spanish speaking world, from Spain to Miami to Mexico. They are the fruit of one of the most developed theatre cultures in the world, one which is tucked away in a geographical dead end on the cusp of the third world.

There has always been a strong theatrical tradition in Uruguay, imported from Spain, Germany and France. Lorca’s actress and friend, Margarita Xirgu, came to Montevideo where she founded the city’s first drama school. The national theatre is known as the Comedia, in the style of the Comedie Francaise. It has a company of nearly 30 actors, who have a job for life. But perhaps the thing which has preserved and encouraged Montevideo’s theatre world to flourish is something which, despite a buoyant middle class and a sturdy economy, reflects the way this is still a third world  country: the almost complete absence of a television industry, and a film industry which is still in puberty. Without TV to hoover up writers, directors or actors, almost all of the creative energy in the dramatic arts gets put into theatre.

This makes for a scene which is full of adventure and curiosity. There’s a relentless search for the latest new texts, from Europe, Latin America and beyond. British writers like Mike Bartlett and Simon Stephens sit alongside their European contemporaries. Lagarce, more or less unknown in the UK, has been performed extensively, along with works by Fosse, Dea Loher, Sergei Belbel, Thomas Bernhard, the Presnyakov brothers, to name a few. Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy was a recent hit, followed up by a successful production of Abigail’s Party. Lars Noren’s incendiary Demons was staged this year by Marianella Morena, in a bare-breasted, rock ‘n roll version which played to full houses. This hunger for international writing ensures a diversity of perspectives, which filters through to the work of local authors. Montevideo’s vanguardia are the Writer-Directors whose texts reveal a combative, knowing approach, cultivating a younger audience. At the forefront are two writer-director-actors, Santiago Sanguinetti and Gabriel Calderon.

Gatomaquia  by Lope de Vega, directed by Hector Manuel Vidal

Gatomaquia by Lope de Vega, directed by Hector Manuel Vidal

Calderon did a residency with the Royal Court and both have attended the Sala Beckett in Barcelona, where Simon Stephens teaches, (as a result acting as perhaps the most pertinent British influence on this rarefied world). Sanguinetti’s latest play, Theory of Eternal Recurrence Applied to the Caribbean Revolution takes place in Haiti, where Uruguayan UN forces are surrounded by angry locals. It’s the third in a trilogy of plays addressing the country’s political and philosophical realities in a motor-mouthed, farcical style. Calderon’s work has tended to examine the after-effects of the dictatorship from the perspective of a generation born after its demise. His plays, with their elliptical titles (Ex; Or; Utz), as short as Sanguinetti’s titles are long, have been performed in countries including France, Chile and Brazil. Both writers share a love of language, coupled with a vigorous humour. Calderon’s latest, Algo de Ricardo, is a warped epistle to Shakespeare’s Richard 3, whilst Sanguinetti’s Theory of… includes a comic interpretation of the origins of dialectical materialism.

This is drama which thrives on full-blooded ideas and stylised dramatic action, more akin to the Jacobean or Restoration stage than 20th century naturalism. With its blend of energy and asides, it strives to make the spectator complicit in the action. At its best, the Montevidean theatre produces works which are giddy with invention, created with a fearless disrespect for convention. Calderon’s Or married a post-dictatorship tale to a sci-fi narrative, challenging both theatrical and political taboos. Marianella Morena’s long-running Las Julietas, with its all-male cast, set out to weld nostalgia for 1950s Uruguay with Romeo and Juliet. Hector Manuel Vidal’s Gatomaquia re-imagined Lope De Vega’s classic as a brash modern exercise in dramatic style, incorporating everything from opera to rap. Mariana Percovich’s site-specific Filisberto weaved together half a dozen stories by the eponymous 19th century Uruguayan writer in a rambling old mansion, the stories occurring simultaneously, in the style of Punchdrunk. Perhaps the most celebrated recent play was the maverick Roberto Suarez’s Bienvenido a Casa, developed over the course of 3 years, which took place in two spaces within the same theatre over two nights.

The first part recounts the bizarre tale of a dysfunctional family, complete with Elephant Man in bandages. The second night’s viewing takes the audience into the backstage world, which gradually elides into the show simultaneously taking place on the other side of the theatre wall, witnessed the night before.

The varied activity produced by new writers and directors searching out texts from around the world gives Montevideo the feel of being one great big theatre laboratory. It’s not a lucrative business and the incentive is neither fortune nor fame. Only the actors who belong to the Comedia Nacional, fully subsidised by the state, earn a regular wage. Unlike the London theatre world, aspiring Montevidean actors, writers or directors have no expectations of one day landing a big money part or winning an Oscar. This is a theatre scene fuelled by something else: the need to participate, to develop a voice, to explore. Montevideo might be tucked away in an obscure corner of the world, but the theatre offers its participants an opportunity to have their say, to take part in a global conversation, one which has been ongoing for centuries.


Anthony Fletcher

Anthony Fletcher is a writer/ director of cinema and theatre, working in the UK and Latin America. He has directed numerous plays in Montevideo, including works by Stephens, Fosse, Dorfmann, Friel and Pinter. In the UK, his film The Tempest was released in 2012 and his plays have been staged at Oval House, Stephen Joseph Theatre and Soho Theatre.



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