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Reflections on Cimbelino en la Patagonia: Part One

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on May 09, 2022 at 09:35 PM in Project News

Tehuelche mythology, decolonizing Shakespeare, and environmental metamorphosis 

Reflections on Cimbelino en la Patagonia: Part One

Mónica Maffía likes to challenge traditional mythologies. Her 2020 chamber opera, Lilith, Luna Negra (Lilith, Black Moon) subverted the traditional Adam and Eve story with the biblical para-myth of Adam’s first wife, Lilith. Created equal with Adam, as in Genesis 1, Lilith admired the powers of the moon rather than those of the sun revered by Adam. Growing more independent, Lilith eventually left Adam to pursue her own life. She was replaced by the more submissive but vulnerable Eve, as in Genesis 2. 

In Cimbelino en la Patagonia, Maffía has created another alternative mythology: a decolonizing anti-story to The Tempest in the form of a play-within-a-play of Cymbeline. In the frame narrative an Indigenous actor and local guide, Dewi (Ángel Evia), has invited contemporary actors from different regions of Argentina to a “Shakespeare en la Patagonia” workshop to perform a shortened version of Cymbeline. They gather at the base of a breathtaking south Andean mountain in Santa Cruz province that has dual names and identities. One is Monte Fitz Roy, named by Argentinian explorer Francisco Moreno after the captain of HMS Beagle, the ship on which Charles Darwin visited Patagonia and there recognized that the wild-looking people of Tierra del Fuego were humans no different biologically from himself. The other name is El Chaltén, called “smoking mountain” (“montaña humeante”) by the Tehuelche people, and now also a village at the foot of the mountain in Los Glacieres National Park.

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Reflections on Cimbelino en la Patagonia: Part One

I was lucky enough to see two wonderful performances of Cimbelino en la Patagonia on a recent trip to Buenos Aires. I’ve also read the script, which Mónica Maffía kindly shared with me—although doubtless not perfectly, owing to my elementary Spanish. My reflections on these experiences are in two parts. In this first blog, I’ll survey the play’s active environments, metadramatic structure, and multi-persona characters. In Part Two I’ll discuss the performances at El Centro Cultural 25 de Mayo by Maffía’s company, Setebos, with particular attention to the ecodramaturgy of her brilliant adaptation. 

The action begins with actors arriving at Dewi’s cabaña in El Chaltén. Dewi begins making strange guttural noises, and within moments all of the actors except Norberto (Diego Verni) start involuntarily making similar sounds. The episode lasts just a few seconds. When the actors come out of it, they wonder what’s happening. Dewi says they are already falling under the spell of the mountain.    

As Dewi explains further, El Chaltén is the birthplace of the Tehuelche fire-god, Setebos, legendary creator of the region’s people and wildlife. Caliban names Setebos twice in The Tempest, after Shakespeare read about the latter in a sixteenth-century account of Magellan’s voyages to South America. So when Caliban calls on Setebos, it suggests Tehuelche is one of his (ab)original identities.

Dewi (nickname for Daffyd/David in Tehuelche) inhabits both European and South American Indigenous cultures because his ancestors were Welsh immigrants who came to Argentina in the nineteenth century, learnt the Tehuelche language, and lived peacefully with its people in Patagonia. (Side note: the contemporary descendants of this historical wave of Welsh immigrants are memorably described in Bruce Chatwin’s 1977 book, In Patagonia).  

The environment of El Chaltén thus serves as a kind of experimental island to which the Prospero-like Dewi brings five Argentinian regional actors to be mythically and physically immersed, and to discover its ancestral bio-power through performing Shakespeare. Each Setebos actor plays characters representing three states of being: contemporary Argentinian, Shakespearian, and Tehuelche human-animal. As the workshop performance of Cymbeline continues, the lines between these states become blurred, until finally the characters metamorphose into avatars of the Setebos myth.  

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The first level of character-identity corresponds to the Argentinian actors’ names and nicknames: Ángeles, Norberto, Teodora (Dorita), Teresa, and Ele(utherio). Their regional backgrounds are revealed in personal behaviour: the urban Teresa’s frustrated attempts to google Setebos and other Tehuelche details on her phone in a no-service area; friendly competitive dance steps between Ángeles (Irena Solomonoff) from La Pampa and Ele (Gustavo Guzman) from Corrientes. 

On a second play-within-a-play level, the actors perform roles in Cymbeline: 

  • Ángeles    =     Posthumo/Pisanio
  • Norberto  =     Cimbelino/ Giacomo
  • Teodora    =     Reina/Belario
  • Teresa      =     Ínogen
  • Ele             =     Cloten, Dr Cornelius

Dewi plays Guiderio and sometimes Pisanio, but his main role is as a book-keeper and stage manager of the shortened main scenes of Cymbeline. While directing the actors, he gives them a running plot-summary, and thus, a built-in synopsis for the theatre audience. And after they have performed each scene, he invites their comments, which further reveal their personal and cultural traits.  

The theatre audience of the historic 25 de Mayo theatre in Buenos Aires experienced this action in oscillating modes of engagement and detachment. On the one hand, we were drawn into Cymbeline’s tragi-comic action by the energetic performances of the Argentinian (and Setebos) actors, and above all by the passions of Ínogen, movingly performed by Sophia Drever as Teresa. On the other hand, the play-within-a-play ethos distanced us into contemplation about the relationships of the multilayered characters and action. That “alienation” effect was heightened by the players’ sudden shifts in and out of their performances of Cymbeline. For example, immediately after Teresa delivered a heart-wrenching, physically intimate performance of Ínogen’s speech over Cloten’s headless body, Dewi stopped the scene and Teresa popped up smiling and hurried upstage to join her colleagues observing from the cabaña. 

A third level of character-identity corresponds to animal-mythical characters in the story of the birth of Setebos and the Tehuelche people: 

  • Ángeles = Cóndor (avian guardian and companion of Setebos)
  • Norberto = Nosjthej (a Giant, who raped Setebos’s mother and tried to eat Setebos)
  • Teodora = Teo (mother of Setebos)
  • Teresa = Ter-Wer (grandmother-rodent who saves Setebos from the Giant and places him on the back of Kellfü the swan)
  • Ele = Setebos
  • Dewi = Kellfü (who lands the infant Setebos on the top of El Chaltén, from where, after he grows up among the condors, he descends as the Tehuelche creator)  

This myth presented twice at either end of Cimbelino en la Patagonia: first by Dewi when the arriving actors admire the grandeur and pure air of El Chaltén; and then visually in a concluding dumb-show by the spiritually and environmentally reborn actors wearing animal masks. Maffía signals the actors’ gradual inner transformation by many touches in her adaptation. One is the increasing tendency by all the actors performing Cymbeline involuntarily to invocate Setebos, whereas in Shakespeare’s script the characters typically call upon “the gods.”  

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The actor-characters seem to find workshopping scenes from Cymbeline hard work, and they eagerly embrace opportunities for breaks signalled by Dewi. They do so by walking into the mountain and surrounding woods, which have active effects on their minds and bodies. 

On that note, I’ll take my own break here, and return later to discuss the ecodramaturgy of Cimbelino en la Patagonia in Part Two.