A satirical theatre production at Madrid’s Teatro del Barrio (6th April – 22nd June 2016) interrogates the role and reputation of the King of Spain as the country’s head of state and its military. The monarch in play is the now 78-year-old Juan Carlos I, who first set foot in Spain at the age of 10, was named Francisco Franco‘s successor by the dictator himself, but who apparently thwarted the autocrat’s plans for his afterlife, dismissing a coup and defending democracy instead.
“Or so the myth goes!”
Claims Alberto San Juan, director of the play El Rey (The King), a tragicomic crash course in an “adjusted” history of Spain. The piece covers, in leaps and bounds, 7 decades of Juan Carlos’s presence in the country including his 40-year rule. It focuses particularly on the post-Franco ‘Transition to democracy‘ in the late 1970s, when a trembling, fractured government on the brink of collapse was suddenly transformed into a stable two-party system under a constitutional monarch – with the leftish PSOE comfortably in power.
“We don’t want to offer an alternative truth as much as pose questions that challenge the official view of things,” says San Juan, who sometimes performs in the 3-man piece, alternating with prominent Spanish actors Javier Gutiérrez, Luis Bermejo and Guillermo Toledo. With former Barrio productions taking on political fraud (Ruz/Bárcenas, 2013) or the illegal government funding of anti-terrorist death squad GAL (Las Guerras Correctas, 2012) – the cooperative now takes serious issue with the king as “for the last 40 years this monarch has protected a system riddled with corruption”.
The King and F
It’s an indelicate portrayal of the elderly king (by Luis Bermejo) who we join in the present, squinting and squirming on a battered brown armchair, rasping unpleasantly and clutching his spleen. He cries out for ‘Bárbara’ – one of his alleged many lovers – but a different voice responds irreverently from the gloom: “Are you a complete idiot?”
El Rey is a blunt and angry play but also fascinating and very funny: “we use a lot of humour,” says San Juan, “but we’re not looking for caricature, parody or farce: we wanted to make the king seem human and to capture something of his spirit.” And the king’s spirit is not the only one conjured up, for during the 90-minute play some 15 prominent figures emerge from the penumbra to enact scenes from public life: they include journalists, politicians, singer-songwriters and businessmen – all these roles are played by just two actors.
The troupe drew on dialogue snipped from personal interviews and biographies, then made up the rest. If this creates confusion between history and hearsay then that is a natural consequence of being constantly kept in the dark, says San Juan: “As we don’t have access to the necessary information in this country we are continually forced to speculate.”
El Rey speculates, of course, with a specific agenda, and at times the conspiracy theory radar begins to bleep. In addition to Toledo’s tendency to make antagonistic and/or unfortunate remarks on social media, can Juan Carlos really be called complicit in his younger brother’s death in 1950?
On the other hand, even the official history of the Spanish monarchy beggars belief. The royals lived in exile since the early 1930s and though supporters of Franco when he took power, were kept hovering on Spain’s borders (mainly in Estoril, near Lisbon) hoping for an official invitation back in. In an early scene of the play, Franco (portrayed, rather accurately I’m told, as a robotic figure with high-pitched voice who rattles back and forth across the stage in mousey little steps) taunts Don Juan, JC’s father and king that never was, with the culinary delicacies he misses from his homeland: chopped, spiced potatoes, the odd olive or sardine… Juan hopes for his crown, but he’s not going to get it. El Caudillo (Franco) does takes a shine to Juan Carlos though.
“No women. Only men.”
The boy JC arrives in his would-be kingdom in 1948 with a smattering of the language and a great sense of entitlement. We pay witness then to his education into a gaping opportunist, buddying up with a menagerie of members of the fascist party: military men, aristocrats, politicians and businessmen – many floating freely between the above occupations. There are comic confusions of identity as the roles chop and change but (in life as in theatre) the actors remain the same.
Among them, real life figures with some eyebrow-raising biographies: General Alfonso Armada, blamed for a defeated coup d’état in 1981 he served 5 of his 30 year prison sentence, was released early ‘for health reasons’ then managed to eek it out for another 25: dying at home in 2013 at the age of 93. There is Rodolfo Martín Villa, Vice President in the Transition government (1976-1979), he spent a spell in Congress with the People’s Party, before continuing to serve his country on the board of bank, Caja de Madrid, and subsequently as chairman of the not-much-liked government-controlled electricity company Endesa (1997-2002). Now 81, the retiree calmly reports in the play, he is currently under investigation by a team of Argentine human rights lawyers under the concept of ‘universal human rights’.
“We’re all aiming for the centre… Only, the centre is not a fixed point.”
And it’s not just the right-wingers, or the Spanish. San Juan: “The play deals more with the PSOE period of government than that of the PP that followed.” Felipe González, the country’s much-loved socialist PM for 14 years (1982-1996) makes a startling appearance in the play as an “Iberian macho” (his words): an obnoxious cliché of his native Seville. The politician credited with extending universal free education and the social security system here strikes flamenco poses and breakdances… little more than a charismatic distraction.
“It’s me! Henry!” Never one to miss a party, Henry Kissinger inevitably shows up. Fresh off the boat from reinstalling Pinochet in Chile in 1973 – and reminding us that Franco’s Spain was quite in step with world affairs – in the play, Kissinger makes a deal with the crown hopeful, urging that he install a “game of democracy” suitable for the post-Franco era.
Franco finally dropped dead in 1975, and the newly crowned Juan Carlos I appointed Adolfo Suárez, a member of the fascist party, to figure out democracy. To move things along, the big players agreed upon a ‘Pact of Forgetting‘, which absolved all sides of responsibility for ‘errors’ and the odd atrocity committed in the past. The bracketed dates to which this agreement applied proved somewhat flexible.
It was in this crucial period of Transition that, says the director, the foundation stones of today’s ‘democracy’ were laid: and it is here that the play makes its point: “What we forget in this apparent history of ‘leaders’ are the real reasons behind the Transition”, says San Juan, “that it started on the street, with the Spanish people and their concrete demands: striking workers, demonstrations in barrios, the demand for decent wages, electricity in homes…(!) But as these demands began to threaten the system itself, those in power, royal, political, economic… pulled in the reins. They conspired to steal democracy from the people!”
“Will someone tell me what happened on 23-F?”
The question posed by Antonio Tejero who made the world headlines on February 23rd 1981, by leading some 200 military men into the Spanish parliament and holding it up with a pistol. Almost everyone ducked – a few didn’t. This, and the curious consequences of the coup, stimulated the interest of the acclaimed Spanish author Javier Cercas (mentioned in the play) who dissected it in a lengthy novel The Anatomy of a Moment (English title) published in 2011. Several hours after the holdup, with many Spaniards having fled for the borders, the King of Spain made a televised address to the people, condemning the coup and standing up for democracy.
San Juan doesn’t buy it: “There is evidence to suggest that Juan Carlos was at least complicit in the coup, which effectively stamped down the importance of the monarch as the highest form of ‘security’ in the land”. The sweeping victory of PSOE to power in the 1982 elections may have brought stable government, but since then he says, “salaries have been continually cut, workers rights have been reduced, big business has thrived and corruption is rife!”
“There are some very chatty among the dead.”
After an entertaining, exhausting 90 minutes, we return to a 78-year-old Juan Carlos – still choking and in a swirl of selective memories. His younger sister and her husband stand accused of tax fraud and embezzling public funds. His daughter in law (a former journalist) is making some rather unfortunate friends in a yoga class. But his son, Felipe VI, is now on the throne – so all is as it should be. Oddly, it’s still possible to feel sorry for him.
El Rey has met with controversy and acclaim in Spain, although few I spoke to showed surprise at the information it provides. It was pointed out to me that it’s the under-20’s who are most in the dark about the country’s history – no surprise really, at that age you just want to get on with it. But one of the most disturbing scenes in the play, one that takes place in rare silence, brings up the question of whether Spain’s young can afford this attitude. It’s 1974, and 25-year-old Salvador Puig Antich, one of the last to be executed under Franco’s regime, receives his punishment by a strangulation method called the ‘garrote vil’. It consists of a pole down the spine and a metal clasp round the neck that very quickly tightens, constricting first the vocal chords.
It’s this collective loss of voice, a loss of the momentum that drove the indignado movement in 2011, that edged ‘minority’ parties to positions of power in last year’s remarkable elections, that San Juan and his troupe battle. Now, as in the Transition era, there is a vacuum of power in government, says the director, and “a Spain ungovernable is an exciting scenario! But there’s a real danger that, once again, they’ll find a way of maintaining a system that has existed since the Franco era.” These are critical times.
El Rey – Teatro del Barrio
The play is in Spanish
6th April – 22nd June, 2016
Photo: © Armando Vázquez
THANK YOU! Sergi Alcalde-Zhang and to Teatro del Barrio for informing on and checking this article.