Pros: A sparkling burlesque-style cabaret in Act I give way to the compelling portrayal of a brutal regime in Act II.
Cons: The stage transitions from cabaret nightspot to courtroom made some scenes difficult to view from the audience.
The Southwark Playhouse has an uncanny knack of uncovering gems that would otherwise pass us by. These Trees are Made of Blood is a case in point; a daring, innovative production that sheds light on a shameful period in Argentina’s history. A tale of dictatorship, death squads and abduction doesn’t sound like obvious material for a theatre show; however, the play restricted the detail in Act I to carefully placed references within a burlesque-style cabaret show. Creating a revue took the edge off disturbing aspects of the subject matter, and cleverly set the scene for the more serious dialogue that followed in Act II. As we took our seats in the audience, a four-piece band were playing a pre-show set that added to the nightclub feel. Some audience members were seated at candlelit tables on the auditorium floor, while others were seated on benches flanking the nightclub stage.
Emcee for the evening was the moustachioed, jack-booted General, who it seems was modelled on Jorge Rafael Videla, Argentinian dictator from 1976 to 1981. Videla came to power following a coup d’état and was responsible for the abduction, disappearance and murder of political opponents. The General had a string of cheesy jokes with punchlines greeted by a drumroll. Act I was ridden with puns that would have made me cringe had not been for the skill of delivery. He led the chorus on The Rise of the Coup Coup Club and introduced a range of acts including a stunning Dita Von Teese-style fan dance; Lieutenant Campos performing with a fan and paper airplane (had to be there) and Lieutenant Suarez, a magician with a neat line in tricks that we couldn’t read even though he was right in front of us.
Act II commenced with the disturbing account of Gloria, a mother whose daughter Ana had mysteriously gone missing during the General’s reign. Gloria’s experience has echoes of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, an association of Argentine mothers, whose children ‘disappeared’ during the ‘dirty war’ of military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Estimates vary but up to 30,000 are believed to have been abducted and are still unaccounted for. The General, now chief inquisitor, cross-examines Gloria with an ideological zeal that shows how dictatorship morphs into anarchy. Act II slowly builds to a climatic show trial of the General and henchmen; scenes that broadly represent the 1983 Trial of the Juntas where Videla was convicted of war crimes and human rights abuses. Performances were excellent throughout, especially Greg Barnett as the General, Val Jones as Gloria and Alexander Luttley as Lieutenant Campos (don’t know he managed to stay on his feet in those heels!)
The play’s true power lay in the re-telling of events that have largely slipped from the British consciousness; understandably, we only remember the Falklands War, a desperate act of ingratiation led by Leopoldo Galtieri, Videla’s eventual successor. But events portrayed in the play largely pre-date the Falklands conflict and many would not be aware of the military Junta’s reign. Argentina’s experience mirrors the all too common South American curse of right-wing extremism; General Pinochet’s reign in Chile bears close comparison with Argentina’s experience. It also reminds us of America’s obsession with communism and covert promotion of right-wing governments. But most importantly, the play shows how toxic power can be. The play’s final flourish is a simple though beautifully judged visual effect that made my spine shiver. My companion, in her early 20s, understandably had no previous knowledge of the subject, but was enthralled by the story and wanted to find out more. An outstanding people play exploring the human condition.
Author: Paul Jenkins
Music & Lyrics: Darren Clark
Director: Amy Jenkins
Producer: Theatre Bench
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking link: http://oscar01.savoysystems.co.uk/SouthwarkPlayhouse.dll
Booking until: 11 April 2015