Edinburgh International Festival: A play from Chile is set to offer a fresh perspective on the roots of conflict down the ages
WITH THE wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dominating the political agenda, there's been no shortage of drama about the experience of soldiers who fight there, and their relationship with the civilian world they leave behind. From award-winning films such as The Hurt Locker to the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch, the image of the modern soldier – shaven, trained, changed and damaged by war – is everywhere in our culture.
But now, as part of Jonathan Mills's New Worlds festival, there comes a new perspective on 21st-century warfare, from a country not directly involved in those conflicts but still scarred by its experience of patriotic militarism, and its impact on society.
Teatro En El Blanco – it means theatre on target, or theatre in the bullseye – is a company of three actors and a writer-director founded in Santiago, Chile, just three years ago; and already its name is becoming famous worldwide. When I track down its artistic director and writer-in-chief, Guillermo Calderon, he has just returned to Chile from Los Angeles, anxious to check his family has not suffered in the earthquake that shook the country last month; they're OK, he says, but Chile is still in shock.
His latest play, though, called Diciembre or December, is set not in the present, but in 2014, during an imagined future war involving Chile, Bolivia and Peru. On Christmas Eve, a soldier called Jorge returns from the front to visit his twin sisters, who are pregnant. One is bitterly opposed to the war, and says that she will help him to desert; the other has become fiercely patriotic and militaristic. And for a fast, funny and intense 90 minutes, they argue over the future of Jorge, who in turn has his own ambivalent feelings about an experience which, for all its horror, has given him a feeling of belonging he has never known before, and a new freedom to recognise his own sexuality.
"The background to the play," says Calderon, "is that relations among these countries have been tense ever since the war of 1879, when Chile got bigger, Bolivia lost its sea coast, and Peru lost a lot of land. Since then there has been a big animosity, and every year or so, even now, there is some kind of stand-off and outbreak of tension. People like me agree with Bolivia, they should have their access to the sea restored, but it won't happen. The military presence and feeling in Chilean society is too strong.
"Also, the situation has been complicated recently by a wave of migration into Chile from Peru. Many Chileans have this attitude of feeling racially superior to people from Peru, more "white" or European. And because of all these tensions, the military – this same military who were oppressing the people of Chile for so long – are able to argue the country is under threat of invasion, and that we need to spend a great deal on the armed forces. It's very upsetting."
Born in Santiago in 1971, Calderon was just two years old when the military regime of Augusto Pinochet ousted the country's elected government in a violent coup, and 17 when that period of military rule came to an end; so it's easy to see how his life, and that of his generation of Chileans, has been shaped by their relationship with a certain kind of patriotic militarism, and by the need to make art that confronts these issues.
"Our company is definitely part of a movement here in Chile," says Calderon, "a movement of theatre made by people who are mainly under 40, and based on good text, good acting, and strong political ideas. It's small-scale work, and we like an intimate space; and we prefer to spend what we have on writing and acting, rather than on expensive sets or effects.
"So what do I hope people will take away from this play? I hope they will recognise its universality. It's essentially a pacifist play, an anti-patriotic play, and it reflects the imagery of the American military as much as our own. It is a fantasy of mine to see the Chilean army defeated, and the whole idea of Chile disappear. What would I have instead? I would like to be a citizen of the world, of course; but I would settle for a real Latin American identity, without false divisions based on lines on a map.
"And then I also hope people will enjoy this play very much, because it is a comedy.
"People often say that they are surprised by how funny it is, given the seriousness of the theme.
"So I want people to see the universal questions about patriotism and militarism that are here; but I also hope that they will laugh a lot."
• Diciembre is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Thursday 2 September to Saturday 4 September.
• Sponsored by The List.
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