Brighton Festival 2013
The brilliantly named Lola Arias, rising star of contemporary Argentinian theatre is the writer director behind this joyous and utterly arresting piece about young Argentinians revisiting the lives of their parents during years of the military dictatorship.
Arias makes work that she calls ‘documentary theatre’ which is a phrase that initially suggested to me a sobriety and possible political worthiness that had me worried. I needn’t have been.
There is so much to love about this production it is hard to know where to begin to articulate it.
From the outset there is a playful brightness and humour that sets the tone for My Life After. Crisp and functional design by Ariel Vacaro with a carefully chosen colour palette with plenty of primaries and a refreshing spareness, belies the apparent playground chaos. The relaxed confessional performance style and playful physicality of the ensemble work is immediately winning and the powerfully emotive subject matter is dealt with in a lighthearted manner that in no way diminishes its impact or falls into sentiment.
Clothes are flung down onto the stage from above until they gradually accumulate into a large messy pile, then suddenly a woman is flung down too as if she were discarded clothing, then more clothing and more. It is a kind of birth image, casual, throwaway and very funny. The thrown down woman is Liza Casullo who experiences several more moments throughout the piece when she has piles of clothing hurled at her. She is the smallest member of the cast and when ever she attempts to communicate something in earnest, it is usually amidst a torrential onslaught of hurled clothing. It is very funny, strangely moving and the metaphor gathers resonance. Liza has also co-written the music, some of which she performs live in Sonic Youth style gravelly guitar riffs.
There is a clever and original use of live video feed, projection and live sound that never repeats itself exactly, but develops its own internal syntax. Photographs of a woman’s relatives are doctored live by other cast members, drawn on or cut up as she speaks. The process is repeated but uniquely different for each of the cast members.
The dictatorship is felt with tragic consequences in every house hold: A father who has been instructed by the military to shave off his beard so he doesn’t ‘look like a terrorist’ is projected onto the belly of his son, Pablo Lugones. Vanina Falco, is trying to work out which version of her dad she should believe as he’s revealed to be a secret agent, torturer and baby stealer. Carla Crespo bashes out a drum solo after uttering plainly that her dad was killed four months before she was born. In every case, the actor becomes the mouthpiece and physical representative for the past. A past, that only otherwise exists in fragmented documents, court transcripts and photographs.
Then in one heart breakingly beautiful scene, towards the end, actor Mariano Speratti talks about his son being the same age as he was when his Dad was ‘disappeared.’ He calls out ‘Moreno!’ and much to our surprise, his actual son runs out on stage. Mariano then plays a sound recording his Dad made on an old reel to reel as his son crawls all over him. He says his favourite thing about the recording was to hear his dad saying his name. ‘Mariano!’ ‘Mariano!’ As he tells us this and we listen to the track, there is a wonderful wordless intimacy between father and son, reflecting back into the mirror of time – father son, father son. Like us, like our fathers and sons, but if we had grown up in a much more violent place.
It is often by this kind of visual or formal leitmotif that Arias’ stories gather impact; they create threads of continuity and accrue a satisfying depth. There is often a kind of – set up, set up, twist – that happens rhythmically that keeps it clearly punctuated, deftly edited and cracking on at an enjoyable pace.
There is a startling braveness and freshness to Arias’ directorial style. One has the feeling she tries something on a hunch to see how it lands with out being sure why (or how) it might work. Little Moreno squirts water pistols in the faces of the actors as they deliver their final – potentially tragic – statements direct to us, not only undermining any seriousness, but also forcing them into a very real struggle to stay connected to the audience in spite of the slapstick interference. The result is a hugely alive moment and again, a surge of inexplicable emotion bubbles up inside me.
My Life After is a portrait of people my age living remarkably parallel yet radically different lives. I left the theatre feeling woken up to an era of history, a cultural chapter of the western world that I had previously been ignorant of. Not via politics, or a history lesson, but through the profoundly personal. More than that, I felt alive with compassion for the five human beings who had shared their family stories with us so openly in the space tonight. What a delight.
Lets hope this one gets another UK run. If not, lets look out for Lola Arias in the future.