The upstairs theatre at the Royal Court was more or less full for the reading of the first of Calderon's double bill, the penultimate event in the theatre's Latin American season. Which means about a hundred people witnessed what is likely to be one of the finest piece's of playwriting to be seen in a London theatre this, or any other year.
Three women sit on the stage, scripts in hand, and vote. We don't know what they're voting for. We don't know who they are. We don't have a clue what this is all about. Gradually it becomes apparent that the play, Villa, takes its title from the debate conducted by the women about what kind of memorial should be created to mark the spot within Santiago where Pinochet's torturers conducted some of the most heinous crimes. Each one has her own idea, which she promotes. They vote again. Democracy seems flawed. They can't decide. A spoilt vote has as much value as an 'actual' vote.
On Saturday, at a seminar about Latin America, Calderon stated that for him, theatre had to be prepared to be a reminder of the bad things within society, something which in a supposedly booming post-dictatorship Chile is all the more important. The job of theatre, whether it likes it or not, is to be both the bearer of bad tidings as well as a medium that ensures the past is not forgotten.
Whilst this sounds like a grim remit, what Calderon's own words did not reveal, but his play does, is that the bringing of bad tidings is also an act of seduction. There's no point alienating people if you want them to engage. Villa, somehow, almost mysteriously, succeeds in infiltrating the full horror not only of what has gone before, but of our society's desperate attempts to find a flawed reconciliation with what has gone before, into a text which is funny, charming and has you on the edge of your seat. To such an extent that, in a play which examines the contradictions of using art to commemorate acts of political violence, the viewer doesn't know if they should not feel some latent guilt in the pleasure to be derived from the playwright's brilliance, as the text lays bare the full extent of the Pinochet regime's inhumanity.
This is a diversion, but it seems to me that the really great dramatists are those who understand the curious semiotic of the English word for a work of theatre. We call it a play. When you are lucky enough to come across a writer who really knows what they're doing, the play feels like an act of play, and the theatre feels like a place of play. This is not to say that serious issues are belittled. It means to say that the writer allows his or her audience to re-connect with their capacity to engage with the world on a level removed from the everyday, to re-form it. So that it can be seen anew. Calderon's work has elements of Beckett, Pinter and Pirandello. It re-opens old wounds but does so with a surgeon's precision and brilliance, so much so that it's only when the wound is gaping and the blood is flowing that we, the audience, realise quite what we've got ourselves into. Or what he, the playwright, has got us into.
Calderon himself directed the play and the impeccable work of his three actresses seems like a testament to the director's mastery of his own text. At the end of the play, in amongst all the other questions the play provokes, including whether I should really be typing this on a Mac, and to what extent is architecture fascist, or rather to what extent does modernity tip-toe in the shoes of our fascist past, or, to what extent are the tools we supposedly use to engage with society's ills actually tools which inure us against society's ills or - Well, let's be honest there's so many questions coming out of this play we, the audience are like kids in a sweet shop -
In amongst these questions two more banal ones crossed my mind. What kind of experience will Discurso, Villa's companion piece, which is staged tomorrow, offer? And secondly, why, given their support of this remarkable writer, has the Court not gone further and offered London a full production of the play, rather than just a reading?