“Are you thinking or speaking? Is he thinking or speaking? Am I thinking or speaking?”
Our Private Life, a family parable in three acts and an epilogue by Colombian playwright Pedro Miguel Rozo, is the first play in the Royal Court’s International Playwrights Season – 2 full productions, one each from Latin America and Eastern Europe accompanied by seminars and readings of other works from around the region. Developed in part at their International Residency, Our Private Life or Nuestras Vidas Privadas has been produced in Colombia but appears here in a translation by Simon Scardifield.
Set in an unspecified but rapidly urbanising location in Colombia – a town with the soul of a village or a village with the body of a town – it looks at a family whose veneer of respectability and good standing is severely compromised when a damaging rumour starts to circulate about the father and the young son of one of their former tenants. The shockwaves reverberate internally too though as long-buried secrets edge closer to the surface as the two sons, bipolar-compulsive-fantasist gay Carlos and hyper-masculine, budding businessman Sergio, try to figure out the truth about their childhood amidst all the flying accusations.
Rozo’s way of demonstrating the claustrophobia of this village family life is to have the family, and by extension the audience, able to hear the internal thoughts of each other out loud. This is a little disconcerting at first, soon becoming amusing but ultimately as a device, it had limitations especially as we move to more revelatory parts of the show. A late comment seemed to suggest it was actually a behavioural pattern that suggested belonging to a lower class, an interesting point but not one that was pursued any further.
With this twist on things, director Lyndsey Turner has gone for an aesthetic which is vaguely redolent of Almodóvar’s film work, with its occasional flashes of absurdism. It feels like a bit of a lazy connection to make, especially as my experience of Latin American & Spanish culture is quite limited, but the character of The Mother could have been lifted directly from any of his films, in the way she interacts with her family, her brightly coloured blouse, her magnificently blow-dried lion’s mane of a hairdo. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it gave me the impression of being rather derivative.
This is extended to the exaggerated nature of so many of the characters and their responses to the changes in their lives, whether through personal issues or the arrival of capitalism. Ishia Bennison’s materialistic mother, anxious for everyone just to get along, Colin Morgan’s hysterical Carlos and Adrian Schiller’s psychiatrist veered too close to caricature for my liking; I preferred Eugene O’Hare’s more straightforwardly outraged Sergio and Anthony O’Donnell’s taciturn Father.
I left the Royal Court feeling rather ambivalent about Our Private Life and that is a feeling that still persists. There’s some interesting writing here but at times the take on child abuse feels a little too simplistic: likewise there’s some great creative work, Lizzie Clachan’s green painted set running the length of the Upstairs space and revealing a well-dressed kitchen, but there were also things I didn’t care for so much, like the fact the one ‘lower-class’ character had a Northern Irish accent and a mixed-race child which felt heavy-handed.