Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Theatre review: A Fight Against...
(Una Lucha Contra...)

Chilean playwright Pablo Manzi's A Fight Against... (Una Lucha Contra...) was developed at the Royal Court at a time when his country was experiencing a lot of violent unrest against the state and inequality, culminating in recent elections that saw voters lean much more to the Left than had been expected. Some of the play's scenes inevitably reflect this energy, but as the ellipsis in the title suggests, not all of the characters know - or necessarily care - who or what they're fighting. In five separate, but possibly connected scenes spanning the last 140 years, we see characters trying to make sense of their own, or other people's anger: Beginning with Chilean university professor Carla (Jimena Larraguivel,) who returns from a day's teaching to announce that one of her students attacked and threatened to kill her. Her husband (Joseph Balderrama) understandably wants to know more, but something her student said might have alarmed Carla even more than the violence, and she's reluctant to say much.

We then go to Trump-era America, where a white supremacist group are meeting. After scaring off the half-dozen or so Mexicans who've ever come to their town, the three remaining members need something new to get angry about if they're going to have an excuse to keep meeting up.

In the late '90s, a guard on the Chile/Peru border (Sebastian Orozco) has a panic attack; his partner's (Pepa Duarte) existential suggestions of ways to calm down don't exactly help. Orozco next returns as a 19th century Mexican hangman who, after hundreds of successful executions, has botched one after the condemned man said something that disturbed him. During the scene changes, Claudia (Pía Laborde-Noguez) has been dancing frantically, drunkenly around the stage; in the final scene, which calls back to the opening, she makes a bizarre attack on a stranger (Eduardo Arcelus) outside a Peruvian nightclub.

The play's title, and the context in which it was written, would suggest a play about violent revolution, but although there's a lot of darkness and references to violence in the play, this is more about rumbling unrest, and the little signs that something is starting to change in the background. Manzi keeps coming back to the concept of empathy, suggesting that it's changes in the levels of empathy that cause these seismic shifts: Before she snaps, Carla's student is giving a presentation to class arguing that it's what separates humans from other animals; and the executioner doesn't lose his job because of one hanging, but because the mayor is banning capital punishment as it's stopped being a deterrent, people no longer imagining themselves in the condemned man's shoes.

A Fight Against... comes across as a connected collection of short stories with an edge of dark humour, which Sam Pritchard's production highlights by playing the scenes matter-of-factly, as naturalistic moments that just tip slightly over into the sinister or absurd. So Rosie Elnile's wide, shallow stage is white with functional chairs and props, which get casually left behind by the characters of each scene; it's down to Elliot Griggs' lighting to almost imperceptibly start to suggest something in the shadows. At 80 minutes, with moments of humour and an ever-changing cast of characters, A Fight Against... is consistently entertaining, and the right kind of enigmatic - skirting around an abyss without claiming to have all the answers about what's in there.

A Fight Against... (Una Lucha Contra...) by Pablo Manzi in a translation by William Gregory is booking until the 22nd of January at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

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