Food and wine are steeped in history. For La Turista: Café Duende, a site-specific production at London’s Morito tapas bar, the menu is designed as a mnemonic to the past; the olives, the rabbit stew and the thick Carignan fumes are supposed to help you travel to civil war Madrid.
But if this excellent restaurant, the tiny sibling neighbour of Moro on Exmouth Market, couldn’t properly be called a theatre, then neither could director Jamie Harper’s self-described “performance script” really be called a drama.
To bring the besieged city back to life he does not present characters in conflict but instead resurrects the words of great writers (Neruda, Hemingway, Gellhorn) who saw the war happen. (A few even older exhortations to live while we can are thrown in for good measure – Horace’s “now is the time to drink” makes a slightly predictable appearance with the pouring of the wine.) This is the otherwise charming production’s biggest flaw – why a collage of old writing, and not a new story? Through a young and likeable group of actors, whom you sense could have easily have handled more dramatic complexity, we hear classic quotes from the perspectives of generic characters – writer, poet, soldier, photographer, café hostess and so on – dressed simply in period clothes.
Some of the speeches are no less sublime for being recycled – to hear Neruda’s description of the invasion of “jackals that the jackals would despise” is chilling. The picture of devastation builds graphically – fountains of cobblestones shooting into the air, bonfires devouring humans, a child with shrapnel in its throat. Harper has chosen nothing that is mawkish or superfluous, though when the sackcloth hanging in the window (bearing the Franco-defiant cry of “No pasaran!”) starts to show projected images by Miró, Capa and others, you feel the context is being over-emphasised.
The spirit of the piece is ultimately valiant; the artist figure who quotes Lorca’s credo that “a dead man in Spain is more alive than a dead man anywhere else in the world” captures the idea of a place worth a passionate and mortal fight. As for duende – the concept of soulfulness that the “café” is named after – that proves elusive.
The food, devised by Sam Clark and served between the acts, is tremendously good – perhaps too good. Even if we’re reminded that the rabbit is the “peasant’s catch”, the gods would still have been kind in war-torn 1938 to offer a stew like this one, with its succulent rabbit legs in red wine and oranges, dressed in rosemary and garlic. A sweet legacy of Spain, and a sorrowful one, mingle together.