Let's talk Latin America

CASA Festival reviews: Montserrat by Gabino Rodriguez

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Ella Mattalia gives us the first of four BristoLatino reviews of plays put on by CASA Latin American Theatre Festival, a cultural exchange project between Latin American and UK-based theatre artists. She sat down to watch Montserrat, a play by Gabino Rodriguez, that tells the semi-autobiographical story of his journey through Costa Rica – via London – to find out the truth about his mother.

The eagerly awaited Casa Latin American Theatre Festival opened its doors last Friday, 2nd October, and began its ten day run with Rodriguez’s thriller. The annual festival offers a rich array of theatre, discussions, music and art events, and 2015’s edition sees Mexico take the main stage. This year, the UK and Mexico have launched a ‘Dual Year’, in which “better understanding between the two societies” is being promoted, partly through a strong cultural program.

The multi-talented Gabino Rodríguez is an actor, director and playwright who with Luisa Pardo co-founded the theatre collective Lagartijas tiradas al Sol based in Mexico City. The company develops projects that aim to break down the borders between work and life by trying to “make sense of, articulate, dislocate and unravel those things that everyday life fuses together and overlooks.”

Montserrat is a semi-autobiographical solo performance by Rodriguez himself. He had always been told that his mother died when he was six. As a young man he began to suspect that all that he had been led to believe was a lie after finding that her death certificate was forged. The audience follows him on his journey for the truth as he sets out to solve the mystery of his mother’s disappearance.

A diverse mix of multimedia is used throughout, with materials such as letters, photographs and masks being employed to portray different characters. The set, although minimalist, makes for a captivating and dynamic 90 minute show.

Rodriguez’s performance, informal and relaxed, is decidedly unpolished. He takes swigs of water between pauses, and clumsily arranges pot plants around the stage. You get the feeling that if he tripped over his words or spilt water down his front, Rodriguez would remain unfazed and continue to own the stage utterly and completely.

The story moves at a fair pace, gradually building the viewer’s expectation for a climax, for a resolution, that unfortunately doesn’t materialise. The combination of concrete fact and the fantastical elements of the play create a feeling of uncertainty. How much of what we are being told is true?

Despite what was for me a confusing and abrupt ending, Rodriguez’s performance was engaging and sincere. There are real moments of bitter-sweet humour. For example, a short clip is shown of him and his father stumbling around in an attempt to find the tree where his mother’s ashes were scattered. Due to years of neglect, they can’t seem to find them.

While watching this story of the disappearance of Rodriquez’s mother, my mind wandered to the 43 Ayotzinapa students who went missing on September 26th of last year in Iguala, and to the very many disappeared people of Mexico who are yet to be found. I made my way out of the theatre thinking about whether the feeling of loss conveyed in this play might in some way mirror the loss felt by the students’ families and friends, and indeed by their country. The frustration Rodriguez feels when people refuse to tell him the truth seemed to reflect the struggle of those parents desperate to uncover the truth about the disappearance of their children.

All in all Montserrat was well worth the trip. It has heart and an endearing gentle humour, and although you might get a bit lost along the way, it is all part of the journey.