You’ve hewn out a tough life high up on a remote mountain for your whole life, your family has slowly trickled to the city or died at home and now you’re getting old. Do you let the loneliness seep in and shrivel you with bitterness? Or look at the sunset on the mountaintops and dream in vain of dancing, having a family, a life? Perhaps death begins to seem a comforting prospect...
Based on the real, mystifying discovery in October 1974 of three sisters hung together from the waist by rope in the Chilean Andes with no traces of struggle in their small home, Juan Radrigan’s powerful Beasts (La brutas) examines the drag of isolation on the human spirit, against the backdrop of General Pinochet’s violent uprising against an elected Marxist government the previous year.
The UK premiere of a new translation by Catherine Boyle, Professor of Latin American Studies at Kings College London, the language is beautifully plain but poetic: “You can see a puma, you can see a condor... but you can’t see tragedies.”
Justa is the eldest, grit and irritability masking her fear of the city, of old age, arrestingly played by the superb Carolyn Pickles. Next is Lucia (Claire Cogan), who can’t speak the name of her father, only call him “the man who was my mother’s husband”. Youngest Luciana is the most buoyant, desiring a silk blouse despite its impracticality; Anne Marie Cavanah doesn’t entirely convince in the role but she certainly cuts a touching figure.
We slide through the apparently inconsequential – Justa’s just plaiting that rope for stress-relief, surely? – to brief pinnacles of hope with the arrival of manic salesman Don Javier (Sean O’Callaghan) who crackles with the unspoken stress of political struggles in the city, ending with the final sobering act that we know is coming, even if we wish otherwise.
Accomplished direction from Sue Dunderdale handles tension and cabin fever well, although there’s definitely more room to fish the depths of dark comedy. Excellent sound design from John Leonard takes us whistling through the windy mountains with only the goats for company, while bare wooden floorboards tended and mended by the sisters is the simple but effective set from Lorna Ritchie.
As Boyle asserts after the show, “I think it’s one of the major plays of the 20th century.” This new production makes it easy to see why an underexposed Chilean playwright deserves such rich praise.