Have you ever felt that a human being is a bit like a volcano? Taking this analogy very literally, Barcelona-based company ATRESBANDES, in their show Solfatara – named for a shallow volcano that emits sulphuric gases – attempt to chart the process of human internal eruptions.
In this case study we have a perfectly ordinary couple: Miguel and Monica, who are sitting down to dinner just as they would on any other night. Tonight, however, everything is a little bit more explosive as the show uses this deceptively simple set-up to explore the nature of relationships, language and theatre.
Tonight Miguel and Monica have a guest at their table, a figure clad in a dressing gown and balaclava. He is is Miguel’s fear, brilliantly brought to life by Albert PÃ©rez. He sits there between them, prompting Miguel to say out loud all the things that Miguel would rather keep to himself. This premise – a couple’s evening going awry – might well be the premise of a million other plays, but ATRESBANDES subvert this familiar format. The stranger at the table – “The Fear” – acts as a conduit and interpreter for Miguel’s darkest thoughts, but he also acts as interpreter for the audience as he pressures Miguel to stand up for himself. It’s understood that both the performers and the audience are in on the game, that we understand the rules.
This sense of invitation is followed through when Miguel and Monica decide to have a dinner party. The table is set so that the couple sits on one side and we sit on the other, in the position of absent guests; the awkwardness of this set-up is constantly referenced and the sequence comes to its strained conclusion when Miguel hides, masturbating, in the upstairs bathroom, and we must watch Monica dance, alone, to the Turkish March.
Throughout all this the surtitles act as another presence, another guest at the table. At first they simply serve the purpose of translating the piece for an English speaking audience, nothing more, but ATRESBANDES take things one step further. Initially the surtitles translate the piece faithfully, but soon they start to take on a voice and character of their own, openly mocking the scene below. In itself, this is not the most exciting of devices, but as the surtitles actively tell us to stop following the action, they start to thwart the whole performance. Later, The Fear realizes something isn’t right; he looks up, sees the rogue surtitles and tries to stop them; this battle becomes part of the narrative.
By playing around with a familiar format, the piece poses questions about linguistic difference, cultural common ground and narrative expectation. It comments both on its own cultural origins and on the whole process of translation. Here, we sit watching a play in a foreign language but following the words in English, often at the cost of the action on stage, and yet ATRESBANDES are resisting being a cultural commodity; they may have made their piece more accessible to an English audience, but they remain in control.