Teatre Lliure – Barcelona until September 29, 2013
The scene is set like a graveyard for dead baggage. A conveyor belt-cum-catwalk splits the stage, churning out luggage at varying speeds and quantities, some shrink-wrapped, some fancy, some battered and broken; without address tags or flight information, they seem mysteriously to vanish once they drop off the end. The audience has been made to wear yellow stickers all with the same number on it. Yet, in defiance of that implied equality we’re still in competition, fixated on the belt we all secretly hope that it’s not our bag that has been detoured to Damascus.
The Spanish production Un trozo invisible de este mundo (An invisible piece of the world), first staged at Madrid’s Matadero, is driven by an extraordinary performance by its writer and principal actor, the Argentine Juan Diego Botto. Botto inhabits four of the protagonists of the five monologues that make up the play, with the central segment played by Astrid Jones. Immigration, exile and isolation are the themes in a sinuous, intense and highly personal work that, El Pais reckoned, was as if its author had emptied his wallet of the bits of paper in it and tried to interpret his life from them – the old receipts, cards, scribbled shopping lists and phone numbers, scraps of experiences, smoothed out and reordered to mean … something.
In the first piece, Botto appears as a greasy-haired guard in what might be a detention centre for illegal immigrants. He relates a simple game of chance: competitors drop a coin into a glass of water, until the water reaches the brim, and, with the next unlucky coin, spills out. That spillage, a matter of natural order, he says, represents those allocated the surplus roles in life, those who should accept such roles for their ‘scientific’ correctness. To defy this, to want something ‘better’ would be at best arrogant and at worst unnatural. As he explains it all, Botto the guard sometimes leaps aboard the belt and coolly rides it for a few seconds, as if to prove his point. Then, further proving it, he suddenly switches direction and begins marching countercurrent – tripping over bags, struggling with his jacket, pulling papers from his pocket and scrutinising them, and eventually, on reaching the back, he grasps the phone he finds there, and we’re into the second scene.
As the economic exile attempting to speak to his wife in Argentina from a classically busy Madrid locutorio (call shop), Botto is in his element. Drowned out by the shouts of other callers, speaking to their own families around the world, he is additionally frustrated by continual distractions and misunderstandings on the other end of the line. Two worlds, one claustrophobic the other agoraphobic, present an insurmountable obstacle to communication and progress, as if there is no way to move on and yet no means to return. The migrant becomes part of a new society of outsiders, in friction with each other and susceptible to its own hierarchy, stagnating yet in continual motion.
The third piece, featuring Astrid Jones, incorporates the true story of Samba Martine, an African immigrant whose continual pleas for medical attention were ignored until she died alone of an Aids-related illness in a Madrid hospital in 2011. While this scene seems somehow less personal and correspondingly less convincing, than Botto’s monologues, it serves to remind us of those truly invisible, those trodden deeper into the earth under the weight of a new surge of economic migrants, increasingly from Spain.
In the fourth piece, Botto gives voice to a Desaparecido, one of the tens of thousands of Argentine citizens detained and tortured under the 1976 – 1983 dictatorship. There is a sense now of numbers, numbers so vast that they have become abstract, depersonalised. And Botto’s plea is that each of these lives be given back its meaning. In the final scene of the play, where the actor returns to himself in a way that he never really left, he makes an impassioned condemnation of rhetoric and intellectualism as cynical, time-wasting tactics. He evokes, as in the first scene, the image of a game: a group of Mexicans who every night over bottles of tequila argue senselessly yet vehemently over what extravagancies they would commit if each were to win the lottery. There is no poetic justice or ‘yin-yang-style’ return to harmony, Botto argues, but a world simply divided into the haves and have-nots.
While quirky and contemporary in its detail, the focus of Un trozo invisible is overwhelmingly on the past, and text-wise it seems a sweepingly pessimistic piece. There is a tendency to speak in terms of ‘us and them’, the hangover of a dictatorship mentality, that evokes a state of immobility that is as much self-inflicted as it is imposed. Yet this is something that Spanish audiences deeply respond to, and Sergio Peris-Mencheta‘s direction and excellent staging (with Carlos Aparicio), and the powerful spontaneity of Botto’s performance, enthuse the play with contemporary urgency, as well as a very Hispanic positive energy.
Un Trozo Invisible de Este Mundo
Until September 29th, 2013
Theatre Lliure – Montjuic, Barcelona
Click here for a ticket
The play is in Argentine-accented Spanish