New Plays from Chile at the Royal Court

“Some of our politicians, some of them who belonged to the regime, say, ‘this was all 40 years ago, and we should all forget it.’ But I’m not going to forget it.”

Claudia Hidalgo is one of five young playwrights chosen for London’s Royal Court Theatre’s New Plays From Chile season, which opens on September 10. Directed by Mark Ravenhill, That Thing I Never Shared with You is Hidalgo’s deceptively simple three-hander about one of the most terrible confessions anybody could hear from a parent.

“The relationship between the generations looms large in my work,” she says, revealing that her play’s chilling twist is drawn from experiences within her own family.

None of the young writers coming to the Royal Court this week was born when Chile’s democratic premier, Salvador Allende, was ousted by General Augusto Pinochet 40 years ago this week. Yet despite being about contemporary Chile, all their plays are deeply marked by the ramifications of that September day.

Some are profoundly personal. All, at some level, reflect the task of a new generation of Chilean writers trying to reflect the present, while not abandoning the past.

As historians continue to wrangle over the economic legacy of Pinochet, few deny that, under his rule, Chile suffered a devastating cultural bankruptcy. Exile, censorship and brutality sapped the country of its artistic and intellectual figures. The regime created its most emblematic martyr early on, when on September 19 1973 the mutilated body of the singer and theatre director Victor Jara was dumped near a Santiago cemetery.

Days later, the mortally ill poet Pablo Neruda died in what Chilean prosecutors now believe to be suspicious circumstances. Around the time of his death, the military entered Neruda’s Santiago house, smashed Chilean ceramics and other art objects, and bayoneted a portrait by a pupil of Caravaggio.

“Pinochet liked folklore, but he didn’t like art,” says Bosco Israel Cayo. “He certainly didn’t like contemporary theatre . . . because theatre gives people a space in which to reflect, to question.”

29-year-old Cayo’s play, Negra, is a journey inside the mind of Pinochet’s (fictitious) nurse, now living back in her native village in the north, where the windswept desert is the setting for some truly nightmarish images.

One such image, of an elderly father morphing into the figure of Pinochet in his wheelchair, loomed over the adolescence of Cayo himself. The moment he will never forget came in October 1998: the arrest of General Pinochet in London on torture charges, and the mix of anger and euphoria that split Chile in two.

“I remember thinking as I watched the news: London is so far from here, and being amazed that this was something that mattered over there too.”

It is rather apt that the gripping piece of international theatre of Pinochet’s arrest was set in London. Few institutions have fostered Chilean theatre as consistently as the city’s Royal Court Theatre.

Elyse Dodgson, the Royal Court’s international director, helped select and nurture the five young writers through a series of Santiago-based workshops. Dodgson points to links with Chile that “go right back into the 1970s, when the Court offered help to Chilean artists trying to get out”.

It was the world premiere at the Royal Court of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, in 1991, that probably did most to bring the drama of Pinochet’s Chile to a wider audience. As Dodgson explains, Dorfman’s tale about a woman who, years later, thinks she recognises her own torturer “was written in English, and probably had more exposure outside Chile than within”.

Even so, unresolved paranoia remains a potent way of dramatising dictatorship. Just as we never know if Dorfman’s Paulina really has identified her torturer, or if he is the victim of mistaken identity, so in Cayo’s play about Pinochet’s nurse the characters’ intentions towards each other switchback alarmingly. Nobody can trust anyone.

In nearly all the new plays here, deep social ties are, at some level, poisoned: between brothers and sisters, parents and children, nurse and patient.

Hidalgo’s father-daughter stand-off begins like something from the theatre of the absurd, until you realise this is actually realist theatre. “What is absurd is, in fact, us Chileans,” Hidalgo explains. The lesions left by the dictatorship have, she says, entered family life, warping intimate relationships.

Elsewhere in the cycle of plays, different metropolitan and rural Chiles emerge. David Arancibia’s Ñuke depicts an indigenous Mapuche community where a land dispute has deep roots in the Pinochet years. Both Camila Le-Bert’s Chan! and Florencia Martínez’s The Red Set are witty portraits of Chile’s contemporary liberal left, depressed by and yet dependent on Santiago consumerism.

Back in 1987, in Chile: Death in The South, Jacobo Timerman depicted a country unable to find cultural expression for the blow it had been dealt. Under Pinochet, he wrote, Chilean artists had resorted to a futile “protective nostalgia” centred on the figure of Neruda.

Democratic transition has brought the country a long way since then, yet complaints abound about the scant funding of Chilean culture, “which for many years barely existed at all”, says Hidalgo, “and for which we still need help from outside.”

It is tempting to wonder what the late Timerman would make of these new playwrights, and their fightback against what he termed Chile’s “cultural blackout”. They are young enough to be safe from nostalgia, yet deeply aware of the past-in-the-present; perhaps it is significant that one of the plays ends with light flooding a once-dark home.

New Plays from Chile, Royal Court Theatre, London, until September 14

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