Cervantes Theatre, London – until 30 November 2019
Adapted by Caridad Svich from Isabel Allende’s award-winning novel and directed by Paula Paz, The House of the Spirits is as much the history of a nation as a family drama. While the country of the play is ‘unnamed’, for those in the know the parallels with Chile’s political history are self-evident, especially when one considers Allende’s background. Certainly events in the play run parallel with what happened in Chile from the 1920s to the Pinochet era.
The link between the play’s ‘present’ and the previous decades is Alba (Pia Liaborde-Noguez) – granddaughter of the family patriarch and custodian of her grandmother’s letters. These epistles chronicle the the del Valle and the Trueba family – their respective fortunes intertwined with the state of the nation. When we first meet Esteban Trueba (Raul Fernandes) he is an earnest – if unremarkable – man of modest means who wants to make his fortune so that he could win the hand of ‘Rosa the Beautiful’ (Vanessa Calderón). Circumstances, however, thwart the possibility of them marrying, thus providing the catalyst for Trueba’s lifelong disdain for empathy.
Like gravity, Trueba’s malevolent actions touches all within his sphere of influence, but it is primarily through the women in the play that we have a sense of the bigger picture. Chief among these is Clara del Valle (Constanza Ruff) – Rosa’s younger, clairvoyant sister, who becomes Trueba’s future wife and Alba’s grandmother. Playing both the child and adult versions of Clara, Ruff is convincing at every age she’s portraying.
Well-known for his extramarital, non-consensual ‘appetites’, it’s small wonder that Clara keeps Trueba at arm’s length, much to his chagrin. But there is one person who over the years who, personality-wise, mirrors his no-nonsense attitude to sex and ‘relationships’ – the urbane Tránsito Soto (Alejandra Costa). As well as Clara, Trueba is estranged from his daughter Blanca (Vanessa Calderón) – mostly because of her relationship with a suspected communist. Still, he is later on good terms with Alba, but his association with her and his past actions places her in mortal jeopardy…
Just as Gabriel García Márquez and other authors of Hispanic heritage have utilised ‘magical realism’ the past, it plays a part in the narrative – especially at the beginning with the play’s approach to ‘perception of time’ and Enrique Muñoz’s video design. Of course, its purpose is to reveal the ‘extraordinary’ in the ‘ordinary’, but it also serves as a contrast with the harsh reality that’s also depicted in The House of the Spirits – especially for the women.
In the world of the play, it isn’t the ‘danger’ from the shifting political regimes that has a direct impact on the lives of the women, but Trueba himself. As head of the household, the surrounding lands and leading political figure, Trueba has carte blanche to do as he pleases, with nothing to keep him in check – least of all himself.
Esteban Trueba (Raul Fernandes) and Clara del Valle (Constanza Ruff)
In many ways, Trueba is an archetypal Shakespearean figure like Richard III – unrepentant about his past, but within his hardened heart, a slither of humanity is present that manifests all too rarely. As for his aggressive vehemence against what he perceives as ‘the proletariat threat’, fascist interests fear ‘the shoe on the other foot’, much as liberty and democratic rights wrought by the French Revolution were an affront to the autocratic European states and the ‘Holy Office of the Inquisition’. But as the play shows, what’s sometimes done to ‘redress’ past atrocities isn’t natural justice that brings healing and balance, but is borne out of pain and hatred. As Nietzsche said: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
© Michael Davis 2019
The House of the Spirits runs at the Cervantes Theatre until 30th November.
Alba (Pia Liaborde-Noguez)
Esteban Trueba (Raul Fernandes)
Nívea/Mujer (Diana Volpe)
Clara (Constanza Ruff)
Esteban Garcia (Rodrigo Peñalosa)
Blanca/Rosa (Vanessa Calderón)
Pedro Tercero (Alvaro Flores)
Ferula/Mujer 3 (Elena Saenz)
Tránsito (Alejandra Costa)
Severo/Pedro Gardía/Padre Antonio (Àlvaro Ramos)
Pancha/Mujer 1 (Daniela Cristo)