The House of the Spirits, Cervantes Theatre

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Review by Melinda Haunton

Adapting a multi-generational family saga for the small stage takes ambition, confidence and knowing just where to cut. Paula Paz’s production of this award-winning take on Isabel Allende’s novel, adapted by Caridad Svich, has all three covered. In the close confines of the Cervantes Theatre, the audience is confronted with generations of tragedy, violence, hope and pain. It’s an absorbing, difficult evening.

With four generations of family on stage in under three hours, it would be easy to jumble the threads, or leave us uncaring about individuals. But the production starts as it continues, with strong characterisation of its large cast. Isabel de Moral has done a great job costuming twelve actors in a consistent style, without leaving us bewildered, and the ensemble project each character clearly from the outset. It’s perhaps unfair to pick out names when the collective impact is so great, but I especially enjoyed Constanza Ruff, as Clara, ageing from a carefree seven year old (with a magnificent puppet dog for company), to a resigned, but still magical, grandmother. Elena Saenz and Alvaro Ramos made several of the minor roles live, vividly, as we see characters flourish, age, wither and die across decades in this unnamed country’s painful political and financial struggles. Raul Fernandes shoulders the thankless role of Esteban Trueba, ageing throughout the piece from determined swain to desolate old man. He’s always believable, though sympathy is hard to come by for his junta-supporting, exploitative and violent character.

Accompanying us, as narrator and constant commentator, is Estaban’s granddaughter, Alba. In this critical role, Pia Laborde-Noguez spends most of the production visible to us, sometimes at centre stage, but often in her own offset corner, experiencing the play’s events at second hand, her own family’s past. She reads their letters and diaries, and reacts to her family’s romances, crises and deaths. It looks as though the cheap restricted view seats will not give you a decent view of her nook, so I’d say avoid them unless you’re utterly strapped for cash. While you won’t miss out on her (sometimes rather florid) linking monologues, Alba’s constant physical presence offers another angle, and enriches the experience.

This is a production that makes the most of its physicality – there’s a lot of speedy movement for the small space, and excellent use of the Cervantes’ integral staircase to create tableaux and apparitions. The simple scenery works to create a sense of distance vital to the feeling that this saga is happening in our past, as well as in the characters’ present; especially effective are an oversize old family photograph as backdrop, and swirling vortexes of words as the narrative shifts along. Those swirls, along with Clara’s occasional visions and tarot, give an occasional edge of the supernatural, but it’s lightly worked in to the overall themes.

There are potential content warnings galore here, of which the biggest should be the multiple rape scenes. The first comes before some audience members have even settled after the lights go down, a shocking start. But there’s nothing gratuitous, certainly not sexualised, about this violence. It’s a mechanism by which women become separated from their bodies, feeling their powerlessness in a sexist society and finding ways to be elsewhere in mind. I won’t pretend it’s not gruelling, but it’s ultimately a rewarding watch.

The House of the Spirits is showing till 30 November, in Spanish Mon-Wed, in English Thu-Sat, Tickets £12.50-£25 https://www.cervantestheatre.com/home/productions/

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