Diciembre, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Chilean company Teatro en el Blanco bucked the trend in the closing days of the Edinburgh International Festival. Having witnessed the multimedia wizardry of the Wooster Group and “hybrid” technique of Teatro Cinema, audiences might well have assumed that high-tech staging had become de rigueur. But Diciembre, with no background music, minimal set design and certainly no fancy screens (except for English surtitles), was theatre stripped bare.

The set consisted of three chairs around a long table, above which hung a tangle of coloured bulbs – the sole reminder that it is Christmas Eve. Behind the table the stage stretched away into darkness. The action took place in real time and without scene changes, so the focus was on writer-director Guillermo Calderón’s script, with its fiery exchanges and cool black comedy.

It is December 24 2014 in Santiago, and Chile, Peru and Bolivia are at war. Jorge (Jorge Becker), a Chilean soldier, is on 24-hour leave to spend Christmas with his sparring older sisters, Trini and Paula (Trinidad González and Mariana Muñoz), who are twins and both pregnant by unknown soldiers. Trini, an ardent pacifist, urges Jorge to desert. Paula, a staunch nationalist, calls Trini a “traitor”, insisting it is Jorge’s duty to fight and hers to support him. With a hothouse intensity, the room, like the country, is divided.

Calderón, who grew up under Pinochet, has said he “only writes political plays”; indeed Teatro en el Blanco translates as “Theatre on Target”. But although its target is clear, Diciembre never feels like a dramatised agenda: it is as much about the human effects of war as the politics that fuel it. After the death of their parents, the twins take different sides, and Jorge finds a comforting emptiness – and fierce comradeship – in army life. Old insecurities are laid bare as petty squabbling gives way to impassioned speeches; although there is little movement on stage, there is always a latent violence.

Calderón’s script is densely packed – occasionally too much so for those trying to keep pace with rapid surtitles – and often very funny. His characters exist on a knife edge between laughter and tears and we’re never quite sure which way they’ll go. It’s this unpredictability – even more than its subtly nuanced performances – that makes Diciembre so engrossing. ★★★★☆

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