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The story behind Tejas Verdes

Director Emily Louizou explains the reasons why she chose Fermín Cabal’s visceral play.

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Choosing the next play to direct is always a tricky – and exciting – choice. Hamletmachine was a very challenging piece of text and our production in July was one I am very proud of because of the hard work of a group of great collaborators.

After we had finished from Hamletmachine I started reading a lot of new plays, and it was by chance that I came across Fermín Cabal’s play called Tejas Verdes. Even though it was published in 2004 and had its UK premiere in 2005, I had not heard of it so didn’t know at all what to expect. I still remember, though, feeling chills down my spine while reading it the first time!

It is a play about the dictatorship of General Pinochet who after a brutal Coup in Chile in 1973 stayed in power until 1990 bringing years of extreme censorship and violations of all basic human rights. To my surprise, I soon realized as reading the play that Tejas Verdes was actually an old hotel that Pinochet had turned into a torture centre. In fact, hundreds of thousands were forced into exile during his regime, but most shockingly more than 20,000 people were arrested and cruelly tortured in Pinochet’s detention centres, with over 3,000 being brutally killed. I was utterly devastated and even though I felt the need to tell this story, I mostly felt the need to address the issue of totalitarianism as a whole in today’s world.

According to the very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally” and according to Article 3 “no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” I cannot even imagine that the very leader of a country can be the one to violate all the basic requirements for human dignity and autonomy. It is outrageous how Pinochet was in essence a murderer – not only killing, but violently torturing thousands just because they had different beliefs and hence were seen as a threat to his regime. The methods of torture his regime used were appallingly inhuman.

All of this, but even more so the situation in the world today has made it a critical time for this play to come back to London – the place where Pinochet was indeed arrested in 1998 – as a reminder and a celebration of human rights and freedom.

Our production is not just going to be about Chile, it is going to be for and about our present. What we want to address is the huge importance and need for tolerance and respect. I find it inconceivable that a human being can torture, kill, or target another human being just because he has different views and beliefs, or comes from a different country. And yet the rapid rise of fascism and terrorism in our day is frightening.

44 years after Pinochet’s coup I wonder whether our world has changed much…

Is the despair of the individual the hope for the collective?

Director Emily Louizou sends us updates from the rehearsal room!

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It hasn’t really happened to me before – at least not to this extent – but I feel like I keep rediscovering this text again and again. I had read somewhere that Müller said that his texts are often written in such a way that every sentence only shows the tip of the iceberg; “what lies beneath is nobody else’s business.” And this, indeed, is the case for Hamletmachine!

Every day in rehearsals we read and listen to Müller’s piercing words, and each day we hear it in a new way, we ‘understand’ it better. But then… we come to the conclusion that this text is not really supposed to be understood, at least this does not seem to be its purpose. During the first couple of days of rehearsals I could see actors wondering, “Will anyone understand it like that?” But it’s not about that kind of understanding: it has to be experienced, taken in somehow. It might be understood later, and this will be the magic of it!

The script’s fragmentary structure, grotesque imagery and rich language allow the play to touch on a lot of contemporary issues. So much that we all keep wondering how can it have been written almost 40 years ago. It resonates so much with what is going on in Europe today. Müller was writing during a difficult time for Germany, when the whole country was divided, and Berlin had become a “barbed-wire prison” separated by a wall. For Müller, the GDR was in a state of paralysis, and he explicitly speaks in Hamletmachine about the “ruins of Europe.” Like in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the time is out of joint not simply because of his father’s death but because of the chaos, the disorder implicit in Claudius’s regicide and usurpation. The play first appeared in 1977 – emerging as it did from the shadow of the Cold War and the author’s own ambivalence about western mass culture. Can the UK referendum and Brexit be likened to the Berlin wall; waking up in a different country, a different city – divided by a metaphorical wall? Some newspapers have, indeed, referred to the Brexit as ‘the most critical moment for Europe since the Berlin Wall.’

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What we want to talk about, being a group of young people in Europe of 2016, is about the identity crisis that we feel our country and ourselves within this world are going through. More importantly, we need to speak through Müller’s words about the need for change. But as Müller’s Hamlet seems to gradually understand, you first have to know who you are in order to bring about any change. He speaks of a failed revolution – a failed personal and social revolt – about people who do not have the strength to bring about any change and end up trapped in a present they cannot bear.

One key line has been shaping our approach to the play, and this is the epigraph of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. This canonical poem, fragments of which can be found in Müller’s own text, was written after the chaos of World War I. With a sole sentence taken from the first century A.D. – from Petronius’s Satyricon – Eliot sets the tone for the state the whole of Europe was in: “For I once saw with my own eyes”; states the poem’s epigraph, the Cumean Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered, “I want to die”. Sibyl was a prophetess who could not die because the Gods had made her immortal, even though she would age. Imagine being trapped in a body – or in a life – which gets older and older, more and more tired, and having no way to escape it.

And this is what the characters in our production of Hamletmachine experience: even though relationships, identities, bodies, fall apart, the characters cannot escape their prison. But for anything new to begin, we have to let the old die first. And by old we mean our fears, our preconceived ideas and mentality which hold us back. Hamletmachine is about ruins, but we believe that something good can indeed arise from a ruined world – only if we fight to bring about the change we need!

Why Hamletmachine?

Director Emily Louizou explains what made her choose Heiner Müller’s raw and challenging play.

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After our production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, which was a play that had changed me in so many ways, I struggled to decide what I wanted my next project to be. I started reading Hamletmachine after a friend suggested I should read more of Heiner Müller’s writing. At first I did not know what to make of it. I had to read it a few times before understanding whether I liked it or not. After a couple of days I realised that ‘like’ was not even a verb that could be used to describe the effect this text had on me. But it did touch me. It shook me. It had a cruelty, and yet a sincerity which challenged and excited me.

I wondered why had I not come across a single production of any of Müller’s plays in London those past three years. Indeed, I realised that even though he is one of the leading playwrights and theatre-makers of the 20th century, he is not very well known to English-speaking audiences.

If you never had a chance to read Müller’s writing, he has a dark, suggestive power which repels, irritates and seduces at the same time! His images and words are shocking, in depicting a world which is disturbing and distracted. Similar to Kane, and yet very different, Hamletmachine takes the deterioration found in 4.48 Psychosis and opens it up from the human psyche to the whole world around us.  It speaks of a Europe which is in ruins. Even though it was written in the 70s for a Europe which was still in crisis after World War II and for a Germany which was suffering from division and stagnation, it could not feel more relevant today. Müller had written in the programme of a later production of the play in 1986 that, “Germany is Hamlet, never quite knowing which way to go, how to decide, and therefore always making wrong decisions… It may be read as a pamphlet against the delusions of innocence in this world.”

Indeed, we are all living in a world which has so many fundamental problems, and yet governments are being busy burying these rather than facing them with actual solutions, while young people do not know which way to go. Look at the refugee crisis which shakes the world, the economic instability, the threat of violence and terrorism that Europe is under. Hamletmachine is a portrait of life after war. Something today is still “rotten in this age of hope” as Müller states in the beginning of Hamletmachine. When Müller himself directed the play in Deutsches Theater, his production was coincided with the fall of the Wall in Berlin. It was an “out of joint” time as he had described it: something has to fall in order for something else to rise up.

Müller wrote Hamletmachine having Germany in his mind, but for us this play becomes today a metaphor for the whole western world. We are inviting the audience to join our production, enter the world we have created in this old warehouse near London Bridge and experience the disease and the absurdity of a grotesque wasteland. Our production takes place in a world which is falling apart, within the pieces of a broken civilisation. It is a nihilistic piece but we are choosing to place the human body at the centre of this world – fragile and capable of both extreme destruction and beauty.

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