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Review: CASA Festival 2019

01 August, 2019 — By Leo Garib

Tamsin Hurtado Clarke in 100 Years

FEW actors have the guts to try staging Latin America’s great epic novel, 100 Years of Solitude.

Spanning the lives of generations of Columbian women, it is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s best loved piece of work. Its sheer scale and language make it a job too far for most performers, however. Who would dare disappoint its tens of millions of fans?

But, against the odds, a one-woman interpretation was star of the CASA Festival of Latin theatre, which closed last weekend.

Unfazed by the challenge of reimagining the novel into a single-hander, London-born Venezuelan actress Tamsin Hurtado Clarke let her imagination rip.

The result, 100 Years, is a stunning hour of physical theatre, dance, song and comedy with motifs from the novel that told the story of three different generations of Latin American women – her grandmother, mother and herself.

Her play within a play transformed the Arcola theatre, Dalston, into a crucible for her epic which spans Venezuela’s inter-war years under Washington’s heel, years of dictatorship, then migration to London.

In the 1970s, her mother took the unheard of step of leaving rural Venezuela for London, where she married a British doctor.

The Only Thing a Great Actress Needs is a Great Play and a Desire to Succeed

Clarke, who learned her feminism at her mother’s and grandmother’s knee, bridled at some of the patriarchal attitudes back in rural Venezuela. Childhood holidays to the old country were sometimes a frustrating culture clash, she admitted. But her embrace of feminism and pride in radical Latin politics, shine in 100 Years.

The standing ovation suggests Clarke has another hit in the footsteps of her one-woman play Manuelita, about a little-known heroine of Latin America’s 19th-century Bolivarian wars of independence, which toured internationally and starred at this year’s CASA Festival.

Two other jewels in the CASA Festival crown were a Chilean puppet show about coal miners, Chiflon: The Silence of the Coal, and a two-handed Mexican play about maids, The Only Thing a Great Actress Needs is a Great Play and a Desire to Succeed.

Chilean puppeteers Dominga Gutiérrez, Rodolfo Armijo, Camila Pérez, Marco Reyes and Camilo Yáñez manipulate beautiful handmade wood with surgical skill and attention. Directed and conceived by Santiago Tobar, Chiflon, The Silence of the Coal tells the story of a Chilean coal miner thrown on the dole and forced to work in the mines of Chiflon del Diablo, some of the most dangerous in the world.

Ladylike 

The 50-minute performance draws us into his struggles underground, and the travails of his wife fighting to keep their family together, never knowing whether he will come back from his shift.

The world watched on tenterhooks when 33 Chilean miners were pulled from a collapsed mine in 2010 and the issue is close to the hearts of many Chileans, where coal, gold and copper mining claims lives and poisons the land.

The multi-award-winning Mexican two-hander, The Only Thing a Great Actress Needs is a Great Play and a Desire to Succeed, was the other festival highlight. A modern-day take on Jean Genet’s French classic The Maids, it is immersive theatre at its best. Staged in the Arcola’s tiny basement, with room for an audience of just a dozen. The setting could hardly be better for such a breathtakingly emotional, moving and occasionally comedic depiction of life below stairs. The two maids dream of fame as actors, row with each other, make up and perform a bathing scene so gentle and ritualistic it might have been ballet.

The CASA festival, started 12 years ago in a crypt under St Andrew’s church, Farringdon, is now one of the world’s leading Latin American performance events. This year it included Latin cinema at the Rio cinema, Dalston, and events at Rich Mix, Shoreditch.

Ladylike 

Inspirational programming also put the Lucumi choir on stage at the Arcola for a one-off performance last week. One of the world’s only community choirs singing spiritual songs in the Cuban and West African Santeria tradition worshipping the pagan goddess Orisha, it has performed at the most prestigious venues, on radio and television. The choir, founded by gifted professional Daniela de Armas and open to anyone, brought the audience to its feet after an hour of songs and Afro-Cuban drumming. Its one-off performance may have been the most moving of the entire festival.

The closing night was also the most controversial, however. The award-winning Fuck You Pay Me, a darkly comic look at the life of a Brazilian-born stripper in London, included a couple of stripteases, a stand-up and a bucket-load of risqué jokes. Brazilian-born Joana Nastari tells the slightly biographical story of a young woman working London’s lap-dancing clubs. It has already scooped awards at the VAULT festival in Waterloo, Edinburgh festival and for Stripper of the Year at the Sexual Freedom Awards.

Other performances that caught the eye included Letters to Agnes, a play-cum-performance art piece about a trio of young Brazilian women actors in contact with legendary documentary director Agnès Varda. Brazilian actors Caroline Marques, Débora Rios and Karla Hill were polished.

Dance highlights of the festival were Moonlight (Ch’lsi) by Anna Alvarez, Wu Hsing-Ya, Sharin Johry and Akshay Sharma. Also, Ladylike by Ella Mesma, Anna Alvarez, Azara Meghie, Hsing Ya Wu and Lucia Afonso.

The CASA Festival 2019 ran from 16 July to 27 July at the Arcola theatre, Dalston, the Rich Mix, Shoreditch, and Rio cinema, Dalston.

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