Review by Suman Bhuchar
In the subterranean setting of the Phoenix Arts Club we are transported into a sleazy bar in the Peru of the 1950s. The proprietress is La Chunga.
The club is “a perfect venue,” as author, Mario Vargas Llosa described it when the Nobel Prize winner dropped in to see the opening of this UK West End Premiere of La Chunga, the 1986 drama that he said he wrote “to project into dramatic fiction the human totality of actions and dreams, of facts and fantasies.” If at one level the play is a hard-edged naturalist depiction of seedy men and the two women that they believe they can control, on another level it also shows Llosa’s trademark techniques of running together realism and fantasy and utilizing multiple perspectives and neo-surrealist strategies to make an audience think about what they have seen.
Central to La Chunga is one of his favorite themes of exploring how women survive in male dominated societies and the way masculinity functions as both reality and fantasy.
La Chunga (Victoria Grove), a tall woman with a deep voice, enters, cleans the bar table, lays down the dice game and proceeds to sit on the rocking chair, fanning herself. The bar is not only owned by her, it is named after her and the audience quickly realizes there is something exceptional about her and her establishment. Much as with Pinter’s characters, La Chunga’s ability to ignore barbed comments and sneers is a mark of her confidence and self-possession. Grove conveys the haughty disdain that his powerful woman has of her regulars with a self assuredness that would leave the landlords of the Queen Vic quite stunned. She rivals them in strength and doesn’t let them forget who is in charge.
It is a play about power and territory, but also about exposure and shame and the male actors have to be as brave as their female counterparts in what they are prepared to show to the audience. If the play is about the battle between La Chunga and her regulars in a patriarchal world where it is clearly unusual for a woman to have any power at all, it also attempts to examine the male character’s deepest and often most forbidden fantasies.
Second Skin Theatre’s taut production is charged with eroticism and an underlying violent tension, with excellent all round performance. Andy McQuade’s direction is sharp . He manages to fuse seamlessly reality and fantasy. Perhaps unsurprisingly McQuade won best director 2012 from The Fringe Report as this review went to press.
Is this a feminist play challenging notions of patriarchal masculinity and the machismo of the superstuds? Does La Chunga help Meche to escape her likely fate due to sudden feelings of sisterly solidarity? Or is it really about the anguish of unfulfilled love and erotic desire? Might it be about what women must do to survive in a world ruled by men and their fantasies?
It is a fine production that leaves you with more questions than answers and is satisfyinglydissatisfying with performances as electric as any you will see on the London stage at present.
By Mario Vargas Llosa
The Phoenix Artist Club
Director: Andy McQuade
Producer: Samuel Julyan
Cast includes: Victoria Grove, Nika Khitrova, Stephen Connery Brown, Corin Rhys Jones, Marco Aponte, Tyler Coombes,
Dates: 24 January to 19 February 2012
Time: Tuesday to Thursday at 19:30 and Sunday matinees at 15:00.
Running Time: 2 hours (includes 15 minute interval).