Review: Beasts / Las Brutas, Theatre503

“Life is moving away from us, day by day”

One of the advantages of living in London is the sheer diversity of theatrical opportunity that this city offers on a daily basis and the chances to further explore sub-genres highlighted in one theatre : in this case the Latin American mini-season at the Royal Court Upstairs, by visiting another theatre whose programming complements it excellently: here Theatre503’s production of Beasts/Las Brutas by Juan Radrigán. Radrigán is a Chilean playwright and one who remained in his homeland throughout Pinochet’s dictatorship and so his work is suffused with the reality of living under such oppression and in particular the effect it had on those most marginalised in society.

Beasts is receiving its UK premiere here through a new translation by Catherine Boyle and was written in 1981 as a response to the true 1974 story of three sisters found tied together with rope and hanging from a rock in the most remote part of Northern Chile. Radrigán weaves a story working back from their deaths to try and explore how this could have happened. They were coia, part of the sparse indigenous Andean population, and their isolation from the world was nearly total. There’s a deal of humour in the tales that the sisters tell each other of the rumoured new-fangled inventions in the big bad city, like talking boxes, sunshine caught in a small glass and a broom that sweeps with no branches, for theirs is a world in which hot running water hasn’t arrived and electricity is an unimaginable concept.

Instead they eke out an existence from the land and the animals they keep but times are getting harder as as isolated as they are, the pernicious effects of dictatorship and economic crisis ripple out even to their part of the country as the few nearby labourers on whose custom they depend lose their jobs and thus their already harsh livelihood is further threatened. A visit from a travelling salesman throws their situation into stark relief as he bluntly reveals the true state of affairs and how untenable their way of life is, something the oldest of the sisters has tried to keep from her younger siblings with tales of the great evil residing in the world outside their camp.

Carolyn Pickles is extraordinary as Justa, the oldest and leader of the group, fiercely adamant that her way in the right way, permanently scarred by events from her past which are devastatingly relayed; Anne Marie Cavanagh’s Luciana still clings onto naïve hopes of life beyond their existence but it was Claire Cogan who was quietly, heartbreakingly, moving as the middle sibling Lucia (can you tell I am one too!), caught between the hard-headed pragmatism of Justa and the hopeful optimism of Luciana. The arrival of Sean O’Callaghan’s excellently charismatic Don Javier adds a further layer of complexity to the way in which these women interact with each other and reveal their selves, beneath the weather-burnished exterior, to beautiful effect and provide the trigger to the painful decision they ultimately make.

Sue Dunderdale’s production has the actors speaking in Irish accents, a highly successful decision which brings with its echoes of the difficulties suffered by marginalised rural societies everywhere, but Lorna Ritchie’s stark design both starts and finishes with images of the real women, and of Pinochet, as a cruel reminder that this is based on the most horrific, and unexplained, of true stories. Radrigán’s work makes a powerful case of how this could come to be, part of an engaging strand of Chilean playwriting that is dealing so eloquently with this legacy, and its almost overwhelming, claustrophobic power is perfectly sited in Theatre503. The kind of production that gnaws away at the soul, Las Brutas is rarely easy but beautifully haunting and highly recommended.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: 50p
Booking until 24th September

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