Coup in Chile with a twist

Allende's troupe of quarrelsome ministers fussing over him and egging him on with ear-splitting hoots, whoops and shrieks.
Allende's troupe of quarrelsome ministers fussing over him and egging him on with ear-splitting hoots, whoops and shrieks.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LEE

Teatro La Re-sentida portrays Chile's deposed president as a weakling and a coward

Review Theatre


Marco Layera and Teatro La Re-sentida

The O.P.E.N./Thursday

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    Where: 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road

    When: Today, 8pm

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My friends, surely this will be the last opportunity for me to address you. The Air Force has bombed the towers of Radio Portales and Radio Corporacion."

Thus began Chilean president Salvador Allende's last public speech, at 9.10am on Sept 11, 1973, before forces loyal to Augusto Pinochet stormed the presidential palace in a military coup.

Instead of resigning, Allende shot himself through the head with an AK-47 rifle, thus ending one of the most stable democracies in South America and sending the country into a tailspin under the iron fist of Pinochet for 17 bloody years.

But what if none of these had happened? What if Allende had a stellar public relations team who could put a pleasing spin on his socialist reforms? What if he managed to quell the mounting discontent from the judiciary and the legislators?

The Imagination Of The Future is a heart-wrenching, darkly sardonic howl from a country still groaning under the weight of history, and still bearing scars from a brutal dictatorship which saw thousands of citizens killed, interned or tortured.

It is a reflection of the anger and discontent which has surged to the forefront of Chilean consciousness in the past few years, notably during massive student-led protests of 2011 to 2013.

One of the surest ways to know that an era is over is when ropes snare a once-revered statue, and the power of the people causes the figure to come crashing down. And that is what Teatro La Re-sentida ("re-sentida" means "resentfully" in Spanish) has done. Its Allende is no romanticised figure, no heroic revolutionary - something the group has received flak for in Chile.

Instead, in this Spanish-language play, he is a weakling prone to bouts of narcolepsy, an arrogant, deluded coward for refusing to resign and a frightened rabbit when the end draws near.

In their dreamlike re-imagining, Allende is surrounded by a troupe of quarrelsome ministers as he prepares to deliver his final speech on television. They fuss over him, patting his face with powder and egging him on with ear-splitting hoots, whoops and shrieks.

But this production-studio setup quickly segues into other macabre, bizarre sequences: a young boy shot in the head by a stray bullet and his mother's anguish; Allende ringing up the president of the United States and ranting expletives.

One can sense the frustration and the anger of the actors bubbling over on stage, which comes to a head when one of them takes out a crumpled piece of paper and begins to read from it in English. He apologises for the interruption, saying that "we have realised that the social aspect exceeds the artistic". He then asks the audience to repeat after him as he pledges to "diminish... the inequality which dominates our world".

Out comes Roberto, a 12-year-old boy who cannot afford to go to school. The actors approach the audience, eliciting US$50 (S$67) donations for his education. When no one reaches for his wallet, they turn hysterical. "Why don't you want to help Roberto?" they rage at an unfortunate and obviously uncomfortable audience member, shaming him for his expensive Hugo Boss shirt and iPhone 6.

When direct tactics do not work, they aim for the heart instead. Ghoulish child-sized mannequins are hoisted up under garish red lights, ropes around their necks and bags over their heads.

At the core of the play, I sensed a very potent, dark anger. But as someone who has not lived in Chilean society, I was not able to put my finger clearly on its source or what it was aimed at.

All the same, I was consumed by the tension in the theatre and the fervour which fuelled the play.

The Imagination Of The Future is a dauntless, blazing alternative account of history - and one which needs to be heard.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2015, with the headline 'Coup in Chile with a twist'. Print Edition | Subscribe