March 24th marked an Argentine national holiday as a Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice commemorating the tens of thousands disappeared during ‘Dirty War’ of the Military Junta 1977-83 and the still immensely painful legacy of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who continue to march and advocate nearly 40 years on for those abused and murdered in forced disappearances since 1977. Tens of thousands of young people were thrown from planes into the sea. One eye witness account is from Marcos Queipo a mechanic who worked in the different islands of the Parana Delta 12 miles north of the capital, Buenos Aires and witnessed dead bodies falling from the sky during the years of Argentina’s last military government from 1976 to 1983.
“I remember seeing these military planes throwing these strange packages over the area. I did not know what they were. But I then saw these packages floating on the river banks. When I opened them I was aghast. The packages were dead bodies.”
This is no light-weight subject matter so it is strange to walk into the smaller studio 1 at Southwark Playhouse and be transported into a tacky, fairy-lit 1970s Buenos Aires nightclub and greeted by cabaret band playing effervescent nightclub music – Darren Clark’s music & lyrics throughout this play are a wonderful delight and a perfect foil for Paul Jenkins’s unsettling script. The cast use various parts of the theatre as their stage and are very much amongst the audience throughout, who are seated at round tables and along benches around the room.
At first we think we are simply watching a cabaret show, and a pretty shabby show at that with appalling jokes and uneasy laughs as the audience try to work out whether we should in fact be laughing at, or with the military clad General (presumably modelled on Jorge Rafael Videla, Argentinian dictator from 1976 to 1981) who bizarrely opens the show as MC. He welcomes us to the balloon swathed Coup Coup Club, introducing us to burlesque (I’m not sure what this was about at all and the dance went on for a long time with huge feathers hitting balloons and fairy lights as clothing was thrown all around), a drag mime artist ~ stylishly done by Alexander Luttley with so much attention to detail and wonderful facial expressions, and then Neil Kelso as a cloaked Magician complete with yet more lame jokes but brilliant disappearing tricks. Cue the real story begins. The ‘charming’ General reveals his true chilling character as he steals a daughter and we are drawn into despair and discomfort as we still laugh nervously at yet more bad jokes and foul satire.
Four multi-instrumental actor-musicians play wonderfully throughout, sometimes becoming characters in the story – Rachel Dawson, Eilon Morris, Anne-Marie Piazza and Josh Sneesby sing with real heart and soul, balancing inhuman cruelty with humanity and compassion. Political theatre is supposed to be uncomfortable and intimidating, so the ‘entertainment’ that precedes the real story softens the edge and draws us unsuspectingly, into a truly disturbing and harrowing real life story that many know very little about.
Greg Barnett dominates as The General, initially charismatic and charming but soon revealed as a sociopathic, power-hungry despot who will stop at nothing and lie about everything to crush dissent and keep control, almost revelling in events as though it were a game. He struts around the audience, physically assaults a disappeared victim in a particularly harrowing scene, and sings, brilliantly but harrowingly, a defiant “I’d do it all again” with a shocking lack of conscience. Chilling.
Charlotte Worthing as Disappeared Daughter Ana and Val Jones as her distraught mother Gloria are both entirely convincing and believable. Ordinary people doing ordinary things with ordinary and justified hopes and dreams, caught up in an utter nightmare. The way both these characters are introduced in the play is brilliant and caught me completely unawares. Gloria’s continuing distress through the play develops into a steely anger and strength of purpose as she realises her daughter is gone but refuses to be cowed by the General. There are tens of thousands of Gloria’s in Argentina today – their voices must still be heard and their strength must be supported and applauded. These Trees Are Made Of Blood proclaims their voices loud and clear. And then some of the tens of thousands of ‘Disappeared’ Ana’s and others faces are heartrendingly revealed in Act 2.
Paul Jenkins as writer, composer/lyricist Darren Clark, director Amy Draper and Theatre Bench have created a powerful, compelling musical satire to tell this harrowing but necessary story. It deserves a wider audience as evidenced by a standing ovation from a packed house. ‘The most virulent parasite is an idea’ says The General. The Junta murdered tens of thousands but only succeeding in creating stronger ideas that do not include sociopathic dictators. These Trees Are Made Of Blood and the wonderful Music & Lyrics of Darren Clark especially, speak for the power of the human spirit to survive against the odds. But we must never forget what happened or those who are ‘The Disappeared.
Review by Catherine Francoise
These Trees Are Made of Blood
And for our next act …
The Magical Military Junta …
Will make 30,000 people disappear before your very eyes.
During the 70s and 80s, Argentina was locked in a period of state terrorism, with a military dictatorship waging war on suspected left-wing political sympathizers. Thousands of citizens were “disappeared”; seized by the authorities and rarely heard from again.
Set in a timeless Buenos Aires cabaret club before, during and after Argentina’s Dirty War, These Trees are Made of Blood tells the story of one Mother’s search for her daughter. Blending original live music and exciting cabaret acts with an urgent narrative, this is a new piece of political theatre which promises to be an unforgettable audience experience.
So come on in. The club’s open all hours and history can always be rewritten after one too many.
18th March to 11th April 2015
Music and Lyrics: Darren Clark
Writer: Paul Jenkins
Director: Amy Draper
Producer: Theatre Bench
Friday 27th March 2015