Ariel Dorfman's Widows began its life as a poem in 1976; then it became a novel, then several unsatisfactory drafts of the current play passed before it was suggested that Dorfman collaborate with Tony Kushner (who had yet to write Angels In America). The version which finally premièred at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last week under the direction of Ian Brown has been augmented by Dorfman with the presence of a narrator-figure who comments not so much upon the events themselves as upon his status as their "writer", before being fully digested into the drama.
This awkward addition suggests that Dorfman continues to be vexed by the obligation he feels to commemorate the atrocities committed in his native Chile, the suffering and uncertainty of the womenfolk of the "disappeared". Authorial surrogate aside, Widows attempts to go further than his Death And The Maiden; like that play, it deals with real people in a real climate of political repression, torture and murder, but it also contains elements of magical realism – as the river near a small mountain village becomes a grim "benefactor" by offering up to the black-clad women a series of unidentifiable bodies to be claimed as their male relatives – and of the mythical nature of Greek tragedy, as the women form a collective entity, investing one of the bodies with a mystical significance whereby it represents all of their lost men.
This is at once a similar microcosm to Death And The Maiden and yet a world away from its claustrophobic individuality. In some respects the most direct representative of humanity is Sean Scanlan's reformist captain, who begins by believing he can square the circle of tyranny and benevolence, until the resistance of the women and the constant temptations of his icily committed lieutenant (Michael Nardone) lead him to succumb to the horrible possibilities of arbitrary power.
The women are inspired rather than led by old Sofia Fuentes (Edith Macarthur); she seems to live in a world of her own as she stubbornly, silently waits by the river for her father, husband and sons, but first the river then the women are drawn into this world by the power of a common half-grief – the need either to have their men returned alive, or to be allowed to mourn them properly and have their murderers given up. In Brown's production and Mark Leese's shimmering design, the river itself becomes a player in the drama, hymned by the women in a fine choric threnody at the end of the second act.
Widows is first and foremost a monument, an artefact to be contemplated and admired rather than transported by. Dorfman seems to have felt compelled to cover as many angles as possible, including (in the person of the narrator) his own discomfort at such a compulsion. Whilst some of these strains – the shadowy presence of powerful local families, the "sleeping with the enemy" trope – are imperfectly formed, his main themes ring dolefully, powerfully clear.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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