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CASA Festival 2017 Reviews: The Only Thing a Great Actress Needs is a Great Play and the Desire to Succeed

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A Mexican take on Jean Genet’s The Maid’s, Vaca 35 theatre company and Director Damien Cervantes’ The Only Thing a Great Actress Needs is a Great Play and the Desire to Succeed made it’s London premier at CASA 2017. Isabella Bruton reviews.

This two woman show, starring Diana Magallón and Mari Carmen Ruiz, is a warm, loving, funny but ultimately heartbreaking look at the lives of two household servants who live a marginalised existence within the confines of their badly lit quarters. The entirety of the action takes place within this tiny space (the Southwark Playhouse stage was actually made smaller for the production): here we see them cook, clean, bathe, sleep, dance, scream, act, wash, eat and pray within the course of an hour. The two are best friends in one moment and worst enemies in the next. They are each others confidents with whom they share their dreams and secrets as well as being each others verbal punch bags, all by virtue of the fact that there is no one else around to fill these roles.

The claustrophobia of these women’s world is mimicked by the set whose size can barely contain the activity which takes place in it. There is non-stop flinging of water, food and insults across the stage throughout; the mess is then cleaned up by the two women, and made again by them immediately, and cleaned up and made again a number of times. The stage becomes increasingly damp with sweat, tears and laundry water. One of the women cooks a fried breakfast of eggs and onions on a camp stove, the smell of which wafts through the washing-soapy air in the theatre adding to building claustrophobia and making real to us the unpleasant realities of living in such measly confines.

Cervantes’ piece not only draws us into a world far from our own, but is an impressive piece of very physical theatre: the two characters who both begin the play fully dressed are almost completely naked by the end of the first minute. Their bodies, dressed and undressed and starkly different in shape are indeed a powerful display of “the female body in action”, as promised  the play’s synopsis.

Actresses Magallón and Carmen Ruiz are truly fantastic. They play the rapid merry-go-round of joy, dismay, love, hate all with such seamlessness and honestly. The emotional intimacy and vulnerability they share is matched by their ability to perform a physical theatre double act. I only wish I could have understood more of the rapid fire dialogue—the Spanish speakers in the audience were laughing hysterically while the rest of us tried desperately to keep up the subtitles being projected onto the back wall of the stage.

Despite the (perhaps inevitable) time-delay for subtitle readers, The Only Thing a Great Actress Needs was phenomenal to experience. Pulling you into a reality without compromising on theatrical experimentation, conceived and delivered with excellent skill, Vaca 35’s production is worthy of the National—although the  latter’s stage would be decidedly too big for this intimate tour-de-force. I sincerely hope this play gets the chance to return to the UK, so more of us can get the chance to see it.

 Photo credit Vaca 35