Manuelita has been written out of history, and she’s taking it out on inanimate objects. Performer Tamsin Clarke glares at, thumps and jumps on a symbolic book, furious at its refusal to give her role in Latin America’s struggle for independence the attention it deserves. But as a real and physical presence, she’s utterly impossible to ignore — storming her way through a picaresque narrative stamped out on the strings of a Spanish guitar.
Clarke has all the evocative energy you’d expect from her Lecoq training, hurtling into densely imagined caricatures of the people that inhabit Manuelita’s home of early nineteenth century colonial Latin America. These include nagging old women as her young Manuela straddles, not side-saddles her horse through her village, and the other children that taunt and tease her for being a “bastarda” – the illegitimate daughter of a married Spanish nobleman, who abandons her and her mother in Quito, present day Ecuador.
Clarke portrays Manuelita is a woman of action, prone to wild gallops and furious surges of emotion. Her approach is unabashedly sensual, too, playing on faintly unreconstructed Latin stereotypes of female passion and sexuality. She starts in the tightest of white trousers and vest, putting on first a virginal white empire line gown to tell of her girlhood, trapped unwillingly in a nunnery. Then, aged seventeen she escapes over the wall for liaison with a dashing young officer and gallops away with him on horseback — or, here, on a chair equipped with saddlebags filled with props and costumes that spill out through he unfolding picaresque.
But after a brief, unhappy foray into Peru’s high society while married to an English nobleman twice her age, an even bigger adventure arrives in the dashing shape of revolutionary Simon Bolivar. He seduces her in a showpiece scene where she dances as both of them, half in a military jacket and half in a gown. The adventures that follow are the most exciting of the performance, as Manuelita throws herself into a love affair and service as a pioneering female military leader. And harrowing, too – against the backdrop of Bolivar’s dwindling interest in her, Manuelita’s body recoils from the blows of soldiers who try to force her to reveal where he is.
This is a stripped down performance, which finds its much of its atmosphere and violence in musician Camilo Menjura’s live guitar accompaniment. He’s a gently ironising presence, slightly detached from Manuelita’s passionate narrative, and largely mute – a section where he tries to lend his voice to her song and lets his guitar fall comically out of time shows why. Surprisingly, though, this song is the only point where Tamsin Clarke sings – a shame, since her voice is rousing and clear. Instead, her performance emphasises Manuelita’s status as a woman of letters, doubly obliterated by history books and by her ignominious burial in a mass grave, her personal papers burnt.
She starts by penning revolutionary missive and passionate love letters, then in her forlorn final years, she scraped a living translating letters for North American whalers to their Spanish-speaking mistresses – and apparently even met Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, along the way. These brittle claims on posterity are represented by a blanket of sewn-together papers that Manuelita brandishes or seeks refuge under – a physical kind of revisionist history. But although it bursts with warmth and life, this performance isn’t revisionist enough to escape being a colourful fiction of its own, shimmering in vivid uninterrogated hues.