Catalonia is an autonomous community in northern Spain; its capital city is Barcelona and it has a population of just over 7.5 million. Now, thanks to Bots & Barrals Theatre Company, Londoners can get a glimpse of the burgeoning Catalan contemporary theatre scene at the Arcola Tent, in a double bill of fascinating, award-winning plays.
The evening opens with Rodolf Sirera’s short play The Audition. It tells the story of a famous actor who is invited to the house of an admirer, a Marquis. All is not what it seems, however, and through a series of mind-games, deceits and tense exchanges, the meeting turns into a risky theatrical experiment. The Marquis contends that theatre should not be fiction or artifice, but should in fact be a truthful emotional experience, with both the audience and actor really feeling. The Marquis puts these theories to the test, using his guest as an unwitting subject, and soon the twisted experiment becomes a matter of life and death.
Sirera’s play twists and turns until the audience no longer know what the truth is. It is a thrilling exploration of what theatre is and could be. The actors did not always seem to be entirely comfortable with the text, occasionally stumbling over lines. That said, both Tom Marshall as the underhand, manipulative Marquis and Corin Stuart as the famous actor give convincing performances. John London’s translation is commendable for making the dialogue feel so natural in a different language from the original.
In London, this play doesn’t feel hugely controversial in the context of the experimental work of companies like Punchdrunk and You Me Bum Bum Train. That said, it articulates well an ongoing theatrical debate about ‘truth’. Yet it is also a somewhat safe production, which seems unfortunate considering the content of the play talks about breaking conventions and transgressing established forms.
None of that in the second of the two plays though. Esteve Soler’s Against Democracy presents seven sketches inspired by the French genre of Grand Guignol. The sketches are linked by the themes of consumerism, capitalism, inevitability and power, and the thought that capitalism is incompatible with democracy. They are individually brilliant and collectively profound. The sketches range from a married couple caught in a spider’s web, as the woman gives birth to a huge spider that proceeds to consume them, to a portrayal of a tyrant who has destroyed an entire city on a whim. Production designer Robin Jackson has done well to making seven rapidly-changing sets mainly out of cardboard and Jordi Pérez’s lighting, although simple, is very intelligent. This trash aesthetic is very effective in what becomes a stark, haunting vision of the near future.
Clare Fraenkel plays a variety of wives, girlfriends and barmaids, giving a great performance. Lee Ranns is also strong, while Mark Knightley brings a good helping of humour, even if his characters are a little too mannered at times. Mike Buck’s translation is praiseworthy: Against Democracy is universally relevant and bitingly critical of governments around the world. At times tongue-in-cheek and at times brimming with real frustration and anger, it is political theatre at its best.
Silvia Ayguadé’s productions are fiercely inventive; both are intriguing and fantastically entertaining. It is wonderful and admirable that Ayguadé is giving London the opportunity to experience theatre from another culture. You don’t want to miss out.
The Audition and Against Democracy are playing at the Arcola Theatre until Saturday 25 May. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website.