30 Jun 2015: Lights, camera… and a crew of hysterical PR gurus and government ministers bursts onto the set, screaming at one another to get ready before the president arrives. The wheel of time has been set in motion. For the next hour and a half, we are taken to a reimagined Chile in 1973.
Staged by Teatro La Re-sentida as part of The OPEN Festival, The Imagination of the Future is a masterpiece. In order to truly appreciate its genius, however, it’s worth taking some time to understand the history and context within which the play is set. In a nutshell, Salvador Allende became the president of Chile in 1970, and while he implemented a series of programmes that improved the lives of many lower- and middle-class citizens, not everyone welcomed his socialist agenda.
A coup was finally staged on September 11, 1973, when the military bombed the presidential palace. Allende made a famous farewell speech live on radio, and then chose to commit suicide rather than resign or surrender. The 17-year dictatorship that followed was one of the darkest and most brutal chapters in South America’s history.
In the Chilean company’s play – which is performed in Spanish with English surtitles – the cast takes the key events that happened in the last days of Allende’s rule and fills in the blanks with a series of ‘what-if’s in a last-ditch attempt to save his vision and his life.
It never pretends to be a history lesson, and yet by taking things to the absolute extreme, Imaginationis able to tackle the past, present and future all at once. It’s especially relevant now as what’s known as the ‘Chilean winter’ – a wave of student protests against income inequality and the lack of public universities – has been sweeping through the country in recent years after decades of silence.
The play daringly portrays the legendary figure of Allende as a droopy but stubborn old man with a penchant for cocaine, who needs to take regular 30min naps. His team of young communication specialists and ministers, by contrast, is fuelled by a different type of Coke (of the Diet variety), and obsessed with how best to market his image.
Not a dull moment can be found in this high-energy performance, which is deftly directed by Marco Layera. At times, the manic disorder and exaggerated shouting can get a bit much, but those scenes are thankfully balanced out by quieter moments that give the audience time and space to grasp the gravity and inevitability of the troubles.
Intensely funny and tragic at the same time, Imagination is not the kind of work that we can simply sit back and enjoy. Visually, we’re constantly assaulted with chaos in the form of fistfights and graphic descriptions of Pinochet’s horrific regime. Morally, it raises a series of challenging questions. How would you spend $50: to help a child in need, or to see a woman take her clothes off? Can revolution and democracy ever go hand in hand? What is the role of the media in presenting a country’s history?
So much ground is covered in such a short period of time, but the actors remain committed throughout, the performance is well paced, and it never shies away from the heart of those difficult issues. And even though the play itself offers neither answers nor respite, its bold gestures and colourful scenes will linger on, vividly replaying in our minds long after the curtain falls.