Britain’s identity as it stands is unavoidably a no man’s land. A kingdom not united but divided by opposing ideologies, which begs the question: what does it mean to be British? During this notion of uncertainty it makes sense to reflect on Spain’s past. This comparable patriotic country, which boasts an abundance of traditions, was facing a similar conflict more than 80 years ago where the outcome destroyed and changed the nation, the Spanish Civil War.
Paco Peña forces us to notice the plurality of the title of his new flamenco production, Patrias. The word can be literally translated to motherlands, not solely motherland. Through this we see how Spaniards, whether fighting on Franco’s Nationalist side or for the Republican democratic government, each identify the country and the meaning of the word in a unique way. Universally speaking, Peña’s exploration on one specific country can be reflected on Britain as despite voting in or out during the European Referendum we can still identify the UK as our home.
Federico García Lorca, a Spanish poet, playwright and musician, has been Peña’s main muse behind this project. It makes sense for Peña to focus on a subject who almost heroically romanticised his homeland through his artistry and still has a major impact on flamenco to this day. As well as being a contributor to the cultural traditions of Spain, Lorca also fell at the country’s sword when he died a mere month into the warfare in 1936 by Franco’s forces.
Recognised as one of the best flamenco guitarists, Paco Peña is a well-known name for many members in the audience, shamefully this was my first introduction to the man myself. The 74-year-old Andalusia native glides over his attached organ with such rapid intensity it’s as though soldiers really have open fired at the Battle of the Ebro.
Although the production is meant to represent warfare, the problem is that there is a lack of conventional storytelling being displayed to us on the stage. The only device the crew and cast have going for them to transport us into their story is a screen. It is only when simple written emotions pop up behind the performers like ‘pain’ and ‘calm’, which correlate to the tone of the acoustic melodies, that we feel a major connection to the war and the tragedy that conflict brings. What really ends up digging out the emotions from our souls is the team effort between dancing experts Ángel Múñoz and Mayte Bajo. The way these two flamenco dancers move in identical symmetry to the accelerating music is breathtaking. With a minimalist set design to work with, they have no choice but to keep us impressed by their enchanting movements.
Translation could also, arguably, be a reason for the show’s failure to emotionally connect us to the war. As the singers voice the words in their native language, they are translated in a slow moving, almost unreadable, calligraphy-styled text that you don’t want to read as in doing so will make you miss Mayte Bajo’s hypnotising display. And the temptation to miss that is non-existent.
The raw talent of Peña on guitar merged with Múñoz and Bajo’s energised dancing is what makes this a memorable performance. But the powerful connotations that the word Patrias, motherlands, bring and the reason for why this performance was conceived in the first place, sadly fails to hit the mark.
Patrias is playing Sadler’s Wells until 16 July 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Sadler’s Wells website.
Photo: Andy Phillipson