A double-bill or a conversation piece that blossoms into an autobiographical poem? Villa+Discurso is Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón’s take on recent history. The climax consists of a speech (the discurso) put into the mouth of President Bachelet, Chile’s first woman president, as she looks back on her regime that ended in 2010. It is almost as if Tony Blair were portrayed giving an account of himself, explaining the disappointments, the necessary compromises, the difficult judgments, the apparent betrayals …
But the piece opens with three young women slightly puzzled to find themselves constituting a “commission” to decide on what to do with the remains of the Villa Grimaldi. This elegant building in beautiful parklands was a notorious torture centre during the Pinochet regime. One area, known as “the rose garden”, was the favoured spot for raping women prisoners.
Such jolting incongruities run through the discussion, in which unexpectedly funny moments are followed by references that freeze our smiles. The question of the villa’s remains – the previous regime bulldozed most of it to obliterate evidence – offers various solutions: an interactive museum of the atrocities committed there (one of the loopiest suggestions is the inclusion of friendly dogs as a reminder that dogs were used in the institutionalised rapes); the building of a contemporary art gallery; landscaping the site into a field; leaving it as it is, the outer wall a symbol of imprisonment and its secrets.
All of which sounds feasible matter for bickering bureaucratic debate, especially when public money is involved. At one level the comedy is almost uncomfortably patronising about female officialdom, as if the poor dears aren’t up to it. When one or other pops to the loo (the occasionally sitcom tone is caught by excellently idiomatic English subtitles) the other two quickly discuss her and try to solve the mystery – a genuinely funny recurring theme – of which of the three is deliberately spoiling her ballot paper every time they take a vote.
Entwined with the comedy is the poisonous inheritance of the Pinochet years. The theme of rape as torture recurs like an insistent throbbing pain until all three young women learn what they have in common. By this time each has donned a white presidential jacket which leads to their joint assumption of Bachelet’s role in the second half, joined by an older player. Following the warm-up, this is political discussion as poetic apologia. Finely played, humane and without self-pity.