Sin Sangre (Without Blood) / The Man Who Fed Butterflies, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

From illustrated manuscript to video installation, Chilean company Teatro Cinema is the latest in a long line of artists mixing media in an attempt to create what Wagner called the Gesamtkunstwerk, or complete work. As Teatro Cinema’s name suggests, the mixing here is of theatre and cinema – the actors occupying a narrow strip of stage between two transparent gauze screens. In Spanish-language Sin Sangre, pre-recorded footage of the actors is projected onto these screens, wrapping them in a layered cinematic world. Sometimes live and recorded action are hard to distinguish, so meticulously plotted are the actors’ movements on stage. At other times, the production draws attention to its “staginess”, styled as a 1960s B-movie thriller with all the technical limitations of such cinema.

Sin Sangre is a revenge tale set in the aftermath of war, evoking the brutality of Chile’s Pinochet years. Three villains arrive at Manuel Roca’s house intent on avenging a supposed war crime; after a shoot-out, the youngest assassin discovers the dead man’s daughter hidden in the cellar and decides to spare her. Years later the two meet, broken adults in a dingy bar forced to chose between reconciliation and revenge.

If that all sounds melodramatic, it is – and, in some ways, this suits the hybrid medium. The themes are intensified by their delivery: sombre cello and bleached-out desert hues. But this intensity is unmodulated and, after Roca’s death, unremitting. Such a knotty plot demands full concentration. But it is hard to take in the action and the awkward-sounding surtitles, compromising our engagement with the characters.

Such engagement is Sin Sangre’s challenge. The screen feels like an impenetrable fourth wall, and, despite the use of cinematic surround-sound, the theatrical space really only extends backwards, into a fantastical world, rather than forwards, to include us. We are denied that sense of sharing space with the artists that is so crucial to live performance. The men have been brutalised by war, and the women abused by the men, yet their strife feels remote. ()

The Man Who Fed Butterflies is freer in approach. All the imagery is computer generated; “camera angles” more extreme; and the front screen more frequently employed. It is Teatro Cinema’s second project and there is a greater confidence about it. While Sin Sangre explores the limitations of earlier filmmaking, Butterflies considers the potential of digital technology.

Butterflies’ structure is more experimental, with multiple plot lines and a scrambled, dream-like chronology. An old man decides to carry out a ritual taught to him by the last member of an extinct tribe – that of feeding butterflies. He meets Juan, a troubled film director, and his two actors. There are poignant likenesses between Juan and the old man. There’s also humour in Juan’s ageing actors who grumble “Don’t you think this is all a little far-fetched?” They’re right: it is far-fetched and, at times, incoherent. Yet there is a real poetry in this venture which suggests that these are risks worth taking. ()

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