Tuesday 16 July 2019

Arts: War of the words...two charged plays come to Belfast

Playwright Guillermo Calderon, who grew up in Pinochet's brutal Chile, brings two of his charged plays to Belfast

Stories: Actors - Amy Molloy, Emma O'Kane, Eleanor Methven, Pauline Hutton and Bernadette Brown
Stories: Actors - Amy Molloy, Emma O'Kane, Eleanor Methven, Pauline Hutton and Bernadette Brown
Guilermo Calderon

Sophie Gorman

'You're eating dinner at home, and the news is talking about all of the horrible things that have happened just outside the walls of your house – you can hear gunshots, they turn off the electricity, all these things."

Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon grew up in the middle of his country's war and this being in the action, but outside it too, informs his work.

The Irish premiere of a double bill of his plays Villa and Discurso is currently being presented in The Mac in Belfast (themaclive.com) as part of a Chilean triple bill by Prime Cut Productions – the third play is Tejas Verdes' by Fermin Cabal.

"It's very exciting for me that theatre artists from the other side of the world take interest in what we do," says Guillermo. "This creates a connection between the complicated histories of our two countries, Chile and Ireland, through theatre."

Guillermo was born in Santiago in 1971 at the height of Salvador Allende's left-wing 'popular government'.

"When I was two years old, the coup happened, so I grew up during the dictatorship," he says.

"It ended when I was 18 and all my formative years, my childhood, were made bitter by this regime. But it was also a time of excitement as we were hoping of something better to come.

"I was very political from a young age, very involved and active in the movement against the dictatorship. Young people in Chile get involved in politics when they are 10 or 12 – it is the world we are born into."

Guillermo's uncle was killed by Augusto Pinochet's security police when Guillermo was four years old. "He was killed in his own house when he was 23 and the political police came over in the middle of the night. My uncle was a militant in the MIR (the Revolutionary Left Movement), which was of course very secretive, so we don't have very many details, but we know that someone mentioned his name under torture and the police arrived to look for him. They shot him dead immediately.

"When I talk about this, I always have to say 'we suspect' because the case still hasn't gone through the due processes of justice. We have been waiting for 40 years and nothing has really happened. This remains very upsetting for my family, for so many families, the trauma being passed from one generation to the next because there is no justice and there is still so much unknown. The details still being hidden."

The first of the two plays being presented, Villa, is about the Villa Grimaldi, the concentration camp which is not far away from Guillermo's home.

"In the Villa itself, there is a wall of names of all the people who died there and my uncle's name is on the list even though he didn't die within its walls," Guillermo reveals. "The police who killed him came from there. And that was my first connection to the Villa, the starting point for me."

Villa features three women debating what to do with this building – preserve it as it is, build a shiny museum on its site or perhaps make it into an arts centre.

"These women are 33 years old, they are the daughters of the victims of the Villa Grimaldi," says Guillermo. "This creates the necessary remove that allows them to consider the subject more deeply without all the instant tragedy.

"In some ways, women were the ones who led the fight against the dictatorship and they are the people now fighting for memory. Men were killed in greater numbers during the dictatorship, but women were tortured in different ways – there was a lot of rape, a lot of cruelty.

"And when you rape a woman, you do it to destroy them morally and spiritually and yet leave them alive to live with that, to make sure they will never stand up again ... the living death of it."

Guillermo's other play in this double bill is Discurso, a one-woman show imagining a farewell speech from Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first female president, who first served from 2006-2010 and was re-elected for a second term this March.

"I was struck by how badly many politicians treated her because she was a woman. She was also publicly abused all the time for her appearance – many people called her fat and other offensive remarks, demeaning her and undermining her.

"She is also the daughter of an air force general who was loyal to Allende until he died during torture. And his then young daughter Michelle and her mother spent a few weeks imprisoned in the Villa Grimaldi.

"We don't know what happened in those weeks, if they were tortured, because Michelle has chosen to not speak publically about it, to keep her wounds private. But she is our first president to have suffered like our people and this is why the offensive remarks about her body are so intolerable.

"I wanted to write a speech where she had the chance to defend herself and also explore her feelings about this country, where it is now and how it can move forward."

Will Guillermo always be a political playwright? "I can't escape the political," he replies. "It is so important in my life, in my family. I don't feel the motivation now to write plays about I love you, I love you not. I probably will in the future, but even when I try now to write something different, politics enter.

"Recently, I wrote and directed a play in Germany called Kiss, which became about the current war in Syria, which was still political but less personally so. Maybe I am already broadening, maybe I will write love stories."

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