I will this week be covering for LAB the eighth year of CASA Latin American Theatre Festival, which continues in London until 11 October. In recognition of the UK’s “Dual Year” with Mexico, the festival will for the first time carry a country-specific focus. The opening weekend brought plays from the young Mexican theatre company Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol and the emerging Colectivo Alebrije, as well as a day of debate on Mexican politics and theatre from activists and playwrights.

Daniel Goldman first realised that Latin American theatre was woefully unrepresented on London stages after he returned to England from Argentina in 2002, where the Casas de Cultura of Buenos Aires buzzed with socio-political drama in response to the country’s crippling economic crisis.

“I looked around and there was a music festival, there were two or three film festivals, artists were getting pretty good representation at the Tate, and I thought I need to bring the theatre,” he says.

Deciding Londoners needed to see what they were missing, he established CASA Latin American Theatre Festival. Now in its eighth year – the festival will take a break next year ahead of its 10th anniversary in 2017 – Casa has imported theatre from 18 countries across the continent, arranging for both emerging groups and established Latin American companies to have their UK debut.

While the mission remains the same – to “fill a gap that needs filling” – the Casa’s decision this year to have a special focus on Mexico was not only in recognition of the UK-Mexico “Dual Year” (dual in the sense that it is the “Year of Mexico in the UK” and the “Year of the UK in Mexico”), which is a year-long celebration of cultural, educational and business exchange between the two nations; it was also because Goldman wanted to explore Mexican culture more thoroughly, looking at what was happening across the country, from Monterrey to Guanajuato.

Gabino Rodríguez in Monserrat, Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol’s play

Taking place at the Barbican and the Rich Mix in Shoreditch, the festival’s Mexican programme features five plays, handpicked by the Casa team, featuring work from a variety of the country’s theatre companies including the young experimental group Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol, known for their innovative multi-media shows; the established Los Guggenheim; a collaboration between northern Mexican theatre companies Gorguz Teatro and Universiteatro; and the emerging Colectivo Alebrije.

But there is a smattering of theatre from elsewhere too: on the bill is a play by a Rio de Janeiro company Café Cachorro and some UK theatre, alongside debates, Q&A events, live music, panel discussions and Scratch Nights, which is a chance to see emerging artists battle for a slice of arts industry funding.

Politics centre stage

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the playwrights, activists and directors discussing Mexican theatre and politics during Casa’s Day of Debate on Saturday were unimpressed by the express aims of the UK-Mexico Dual Year celebrations. This year the Casa festival falls just days from the first anniversary of the date on which 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College went missing after attending a protest in Guerrero state, a mass disappearance that shocked Mexico, not least because a year on only one of the bodies has been identified by a bone fragment and the credibility of the government’s investigation into the atrocity has been severely questioned.

President Peña Nieto’s state visit to the UK in March was overshadowed by the Ayotzinapa disappearances and corruption scandals in Mexico, with activists questioning why the red carpet should be rolled out for a government condemned earlier in the year by the UN for its record on forced disappearances.

Arts activist Mijael Jiminéz from H.I.J.O.S (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Oblivion and Silence), a collective campaigning for justice for the disappeared, described the dual year as “problematic”. Mexicans must rebuild cities and reclaim public space, said Jiminéz, and not let them remain monuments to oppressors. He showed photographs of activists spraying street signs named after former president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz with “2 October 1968”, the date of the massacre of students at a demonstration in Tlatelolco Plaza that followed the Army’s occupation of UNAM (Autonomous University of Mexcio) and that Diaz presided over. The film ‘Dancing with the Disappeared’, depicted relatives wearing photographs of the disappeared around their necks congregating in plazas and squares to dance, often alone.

According to acclaimed playwright and publisher Jaime Chabaud, young theatre groups tackling atrocities and the “eternal repetition” of Mexico’s narcotraffic wars have begun to reinvent story-telling. Goldman described this as an “explosion of theatrical form” replacing post-colonial theatre, in which “playwrights write a play, actors are contracted to act in that play, and the audience watch it in the dark”.

This new theatre is characterized by its use of “new tools” such archive, documentary, verbatim voices and witness statements to compile stories based on real events. An evidence-based approach is deployed to represent and deconstruct political reality. As Goldman says: “All the companies work with documentary, with footage, with facts and numbers. Life in Mexico is stranger than fiction. The fact is more terrible and more awful than any fiction”.

But it is not only dramatic form that has been transformed. Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol’s Sergio Lopez Vigueras and Francisco Barreiro insist that the very structures of theatre companies must be dismantled. Traditional hierarchies should be replaced with “horizontal” collaborations to allow creative autonomy and “to produce opposition in our most basic relationships”. Barreiro told an anecdote of how a “dinosaur critic” in Mexico disagreed with the “political” label of one of their plays about three teenagers going on a road trip. But, says Barreiro, “the politics was in the group. There was no hierarchy – it was horizontal, a collective. We never apply for money from the state and we decide what we do and what we say. We are working with political issues that affect our generation.”

Montserrat, Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol, Rich Mix

The festival opened on Friday night at Rich Mix arts centre in Shoreditch. The opening show was Montserrat, a multi-media one-man performance by Gabino Rodríguez, the co-founder and director of Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol, who, apparently as himself, embarks on an international search for his Costa Rican mother Montserrat, after he discovers, aged 32, that her death certificate was forged.

He begins by telling the story of his mother, who his father Jose told him died when he was six. Montserrat’s diary entries, family photographs, and home videos flash up on screen as her son presents his findings like a prosecutor building a case, brandishing pieces of paper and placing them carefully in a neat row for us the audience to assess. We are shown tragi-comic video footage of Rodriguez walking through a forest with his father. They are hunting for the tree where his mother’s ashes were scattered but they cannot remember which tree it is.

One day he finds a letter from his mother, “not written like someone about to die”, and then discovers her death certificate was faked. Becoming obsessed with her whereabouts he hires a private detective, reconnects with long-lost relatives and travels to Costa Rica to track her down. He ignores friends and family who try to persuade him to accept his loss and to stop pursuing Montserrat with such dogged determination.

Rodriguez speaks with compulsive urgency, as if sharing his story is the only way for him to find solace. Montserrat is presented like a biographical documentary, but the audience remains unsure of the story’s veracity. Information presented to us as fact is later undermined by fresh evidence. If a death certificate can be forged, can we have faith in the other documents presented to us? When did we all come to doubt facts? This strange and compelling play explores the damage done to people when both the emotional and legal-institutional foundations that lives are built on begin to crumble.

APART, Colectivo Alebrije, Rich Mix

Saturday evening saw the UK debut of emerging Mexican company Colectivo Alebrije’s play APART, a multi-layered portrait of a town suffering from the decline of its leather industry.

Playwright Sara Pinedo, who also performs as herself together with Oscar Rodríguez and Khalé Chriagop, maps out the history of León, a town in Guanajuato state, from past to present. Tanneries and manufacturing factories, the town’s lifeblood, are closing and the ageing community is fast disappearing.

The Coletivo Alebrije in APART

Pinedo gives voice to local townsfolk through testimonies and interviews, which she intersperses with the trio’s own personal tales woven one by one into the historical fabric of the town, as the processes of skinning, dyeing and beating leather is extended to become an exploration of human skin.

This fascination with corporeality is apparent in the opening scene in which Sara, Oscar and Khalé stand in the beam of an old-fashioned overhead projector, scrawl on each other’s bodies with marker pens, and recite passages from biology textbooks.

Alejandro Carrillo’s set design includes clever use of lighting, with the slides superimposed with moving video, creating magical overlaying imagery. As with Casa’s opening play Montserrat, the action flits furiously between screen and performance. Those with patchy Spanish, who need to keep one eye on the subtitles, might struggle to follow the multiple narratives at play.

But there are visceral moments that speak to anyone made of flesh and blood. The intensity of Oscar Rodriguez’s sketch depicting his grief following his mother’s death from breast cancer is one of APART’s most affecting moments. He kneels on the floor, strips to the waist, loops his arms through a white bra and places an orange in one of the cups. He cuts and stabs his own breast repeatedly, hollowing out the fruit as the juices run down his chest.

Crisps with hot sauce and lime are passed around the audience, along with a generous number of tequila shots. Later we are encouraged to throw chunks of lettuce at the trio in outrage at their bad dancing. Khalé holds a mirror to the audience to crowd-source the play’s theme. “What does skin mean to you?” he asks. The audience embraces its moment in the spotlight, calling out “identity”, “protection”, “contact”.

APART is this León-based collective’s ode to a hometown in a state of flux. East London’s gentrification commentators could learn something from this exuberant and playful exploration of what makes a place important.

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