David Espinosa is 38 seconds into his introduction to his ambitious great work, titled Ronseal-style Mi Gran Obra (un proyecto ambicioso), and already I am charmed. The kind of charmed that exposes itself in bubbles of girlish laughter, and inclines me to love the next 54 minutes of his show almost without question. He’s talking about the economics of big productions, the lavish sets that fill major stages, and how hard it is to enjoy them without hallucinating price tags, and I agree with him absolutely. The resistance he feels towards such work, his inability to overlook or shrug off the ostentation, and signs of privilege, on display, is one I share. Admittedly, there’s a catch-22 here: in November, Matt Trueman wrote a knotty column for What’s On, looking at the simple, stripped-back, greyscale design currently in vogue, especially in London, and questioned whether, “in deploying the aesthetic of austerity, today’s theatre ends up somehow endorsing the politics”. He suggested challenging that conservative rhetoric with glorious spectacle and excess; Espinosa’s answer – one I endorse – is to turn instead to poor theatre, use everyday materials, and be excessive with imagination rather than with cash.
And so his theatre building, scaled 1:87, is a suitcase; his performers are model railway figures; his stage is a series of sticky foam pads stuck to a table-top, augmented by a plant-pot tray, a plastic plate and a bag of supermarket rice. His opening gambit is to represent an entire life, from baby to first steps to teenage sex, marriage and parenthood and gradual physical decline, until the inevitable arrival of death, an inch-high grim reaper solemnly bearing his scythe. Before long Espinosa has men on the moon soundtracked by a mariachi band, children frolicking in a playground, wandering bulls, a friendly elephant, a rally and an assassination. All for a hallucinatory price tag of approximately £450.
What’s remarkable is how evocative Espinosa’s scenes are not only of real-life scenarios but other theatre – big budget and small. Within a single five-minute sequence, Mi Gran Obra reminded me of Robert Lepage’s dazzling The Far Side of the Moon, particularly the magical bit when a washing machine was transformed into a spaceship; the end of Sleepwalk Collective’s Karaoke, evoking apocalypse through images of detritus washed up on a beach; and James MacDonald’s production of Peter Handke’s The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, in which 450 characters cross the stage in sequence, none of them saying a word. When he brings on a helicopter, a toy whose blades whirr in the air blast of a hairdryer, it’s like sitting in front of the Nicholas Hytner/Adrian Lester Henry V, yet I’m pretty sure that didn’t have a helicopter in it, toy or otherwise. Espinosa plays deftly with the way theatre activates the imagination and lives on in the mind: what he presents has the image of everyday life but is a specifically theatrical interpretation of it, choreographed with precision.
That precision is most striking in those lightning-flash moments when he subtly changes the meaning of a scene: a single figure lying on the ground becomes the casualty of a car accident when a doctor bends over him; a man holding his cock while a girl gyrates in skimpy dress might be the conventional client of a sex club, until a donkey is pressed to his groin; the only difference between a peaceful demonstration and a riot is the presence of policemen. Espinosa excels at subverting expectations of charm and tweeness: sex and death loom large (who knew there was such a trade in erotic model figurines), and there’s an underlying note of sinister threat that finally cracks when he wields a toy rifle.
This is what life is like: joy and violence mingled, with sex so often the faultline where they meet. But this is where, for me, Mi Gran Obra becomes problematic. This is a work celebrating limitless imagination, the boundless scope of theatre – particularly at this scale – to convey or say absolutely anything. And yet, what Espinosa mostly says about women is that they are mothers or sex objects, and homosexuality barely seems to figure. There is a brilliantly comic scene set atop a tambourine, of multiple figures mid-coitus, but all of them are white. There is no genuine expansiveness here, only the narrow worldview of the dominant white male culture. And that isn’t charming at all.