REVIEW: El policía de las ratas – dir. Àlex Rigola / cia. Heartbreak Hotel

El policía de las ratas (Police Rat) is a wonderfully intense Spanish-language 2-man play directed by Àlex Rigola. It is based on the short story by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, “one of the most improbable international literary celebrities since William Burroughs”, according to the New York Times (who doesn’t give any further explanation).

El policía de las ratas directed by Àlex Rigola and starring Joan Carreras (left) and Andreu Benito (right). The rat is uncredited.

Possibly the only example of the rat noir genre, Bolaño’s Rat Police is gnawed down to 55 minutes and staged on a black, white and red set, as idealistically sparse and hygienic as the narrative of the play is gloomy, sinuous and sub-textually bottomless. Most of the action is narrated into a microphone by a twitchy police rat called Pepe el Tira (the brilliant Joan Carreras), and it is with the persuasive intimacy of a radio drama that we are dragged along Bolaño’s sewers in Pepe’s relentless hunt for a serial killer, whose murderous ways – his slow starvation of a baby rat, for example – reveal a really unpleasant fascination with the prolonged process of death.

Pepe becomes convinced that this killer is a fellow rat, a conclusion so incomprehensible to a community “hard-working, cooperative and exquisitely polite” (NYT), that Pepe discovers that it is best not mentioned again. The other character in the piece (played by the equally excellent Andreu Benito) exerts a quiet, insurmountable authority, his presence both protective and a bit threatening – like the most effective of dads. There’s a powerful bond between the two, with the occasional warning look shot in Pepe’s direction just enough to reaffirm that relationship – while it also serves to jolt the piece, keep it from sinking into the depths of moody introspection.

Whatever we can say the play is about, if it is about any one thing, there is a continual ruminating on death. We wander its circumference, stare into the abyss, then yank ourselves back again, all shivery and creeped out. An intravenous drip on stage pools blood around a small white mouse. Are we that mouse? Petrified yet tantalised; fascinated yet afraid?

El policía de las ratas directed by Àlex Rigola and starring Joan Carreras (left) and Andreu Benito (right)

Or is it all about ‘art‘, that rat anagram. Bolaño’s story drew on one of Franz Kafka’s last, written in the 1920s when he was dying of tuberculosis. It’s about a mouse singer called Josephine, whose unique squeaking might be considered either artistically life affirming or artistically torturous. Bolaño’s Pepe el Tira is presented as Josephine’s nephew, his solitary, obsessive ways echo those of both the killer and ‘the artist’; someone better “pitied than admired”, Bolaño writes in Police Rat, because artists don’t fit in, because they are “condemned to solitude”, poor things.

A rat gives an uncredited performance in the play El policía de las ratas directed by Àlex RigolaEl policía de las ratas
Until November 24th, 2013
Teatre Lliure – Gràcia
Click here for a tick

Thanks to: Heartbreak Hotel and Àlex Rigola for the photos