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Reflections on Cimbelino en la Patagonia: Part Two

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on May 13, 2022 at 11:40 PM in Project News

Spell-binding ecodramaturgy 

In a talk I gave in Buenos Aires about Cymbeline in the Anthropocene, I mentioned that two of the project’s leading goals are to heighten awareness of human dependence on the well-being of natural world, and to undermine cultural reflexes of exploitation that are taking us to the brink of self-destruction in the twenty-first century. In the origin-story of the Tehuelche fire-god Setebos (see Reflections: Part One), Monica Maffía has found a South American Indigenous counter-narrative to such beliefs. And in Cimbelino en la Patagonia she shows how Tehuelche worldview transforms Eurocentric convictions about respectful human-nature ecologies.  

Reflections on Cimbelino en la Patagonia: Part Two

Maffía dramatizes this transformation by having theatre audiences witness contemporary Argentinian actors performing Cymbeline in affective dialogue with El Chaltén, a place sacred to Tehuelche culture. Environment in Cimbelino en la Patagonia is not just an eco-theme or picturesque backdrop: it is a subjective reorientation.   

After hearing the enthusiastic Dewi (Ángel Evia) explain the Tehuelche framework for the workshop he gives the play’s other characters, Teodora (Rocio de León) remarks somewhat patronizingly that Dewi’s concept is “site-specific.” And it is, in the sense that El Chaltén is a sublime setting for Belario and Guiderio’s dwelling-place in the Welsh wilderness and the romance journeys of Ínogen, Postumo, and others. But the actors’ experience of the site is also immersive. From a metadramatic perspective, we watch a cross-section of ordinary Argentinians being shifted out of their normal lives by bodily experiences of Setebosian phenomena in Patagonia. They rediscover an ecological truth the Eurocentric world has largely forgotten: non-human nature is always responding to our actions and reshaping them on scales which modernity has tried to supress.  

Each of the visiting actors comes to recognize this interaction in different ways and at individual paces. Ángeles (Irena Solomonoff) is the first to sense the potential. To relieve her stress after the long car journey, she downs droppers of Flowers of Bach Rescue Remedy. But as she drinks in the fresh air of El Chaltén, a more profound healing begins to take over. Marvelling at the mountain, her spirit takes flight in reciting the final verses of Olegario Víctor Andrade´s "El nido de cóndores" / "The Nest of Condors":

Cuando el mar patagón alce a su paso

los himnos de victoria, volverá a saludarlo

como un día en la cumbre del Ande, 

para decir al mundo: ¡Éste es el grande!

Moved by Ángeles’s rapture, Eleuterio (Gustavo Guzman) also senses the mountain’s “tremendous energy.” Its power seems to drive his kinetic impulses to dance, zip around on a scooter, or pump up Cloten’s aubade to Ínogen into a pulsating Caribbean love-song. Guzman was wonderfully dynamic in these aspects, at the same time sharing a different manifestation of Ángeles’s spiritual sensibility.  

Other actors are drawn into El Chaltén’s aura more slowly. Norberto (a charismatically voiced Diego Verni) is initially preoccupied with hauling luggage to the cabaña and is absent for Dewi’s history of Setebos. He re-enters in persona as a fanatical Cymbeline, obsessed with destroying his daughter’s secret marriage to Posthumo. His smiling Queen, played with wicked relish by Teodora, falsely tries to calm him down and also to reassure Dr. Cornelius (Gustavo Guzman) about the benign intentions of her poisons (he is not deceived, of course).

Norberto returns still hot-tempered as Giacomo for the night scene in Ínogen’s bedchamber, mimicking a Nosferatu-like vampire. Dewi interrupts Norberto’s over-the-top interpretation, refocusing his Shakespearian task of inventorying the details of Ínogen’s room and body. Norberto remains emotionally volatile, however, and irritably rejects Ángeles’s proffered Flores de Bach, but he does take up Dewi’s suggestion to go for a run. 

Returning decompressed, he is nonetheless disturbed by seeing ash covering parts of the mountain, which he connects to recent reports of wildfires in the region. The actors begin adding anecdotes about real environmental problems in Argentina. Teresa mentions local Indigenous communities ruined by the fires because no help was sent. Ele says that in el Paraná province, wildfires have also destroyed crops and animals, and that two years’ lack of rain has dried up water reservoirs which might have been used to fight the fires. Norberto links these disasters to the “deforestation maldíta” and climate change. Dewi remarks darkly that he thinks the local fires were deliberately set. Norberto backs him up, explaining that the landscape was charred to reveal the surface presence of precious metals for extraction. Horrified by this greed, the entire troop cries out, “Setebos!!”  

*

Reflections on Cimbelino en la Patagonia: Part Two

In the ecodramaturgy of Maffía’s play, Shakespearian fiction and contemporary perspectives blur. At one of the points when Dewi asks for comments, the actors ponder the background of the ring and bracelet exchanged respectively by Ínogen and Posthumo. Ángeles imagines that Ínogen’s mother’s ring was an heirloom for her future partner. But where does Posthumo’s bracelet come from, given his humbler background? In the absence of a textual explanation, the actors reconstruct and critique the object’s early modern colonial history: it began as precious metals extracted from the Americas by the Spanish, and continued as treasure seized by British pirates serving Queen Elizabeth. It’s now the kind of imperial property on display in the British Museum, the kind that ought to be restored to its Indigenous origins.   

At a later point, after the actors have been literally ingesting the El Chaltén environment in the form of locally foraged fruits, Dewi expands on an earlier quip about alligators when the actors were jesting about belt materials. He explains that in Corrientes province, alligators in the estuary of the Íbera wetlands are being poisoned by chemical pollution. One of its effects is that it confuses the development of the alligators’ genitals, and disrupts their sexual reproduction. If that is the effect on alligators, Norberto wonders, what are its dangers to humans? 

My summaries of such moments may sound more didactic they come across in Maffía’s dialogue, which remains light and conversational. Yet progressively they show the phenomenal embodiment of El Chaltén and Cymbeline drawing out the actors’ unexamined knowledge of environmental problems and inviting them to join their systemic causes and effects. The positive outcome of this collective thinking, as Ele states, is a new ethos: “Y cambiar la conducta” / “We have to change our behaviour." 

And the actors do. Gradually, all of them invoke Setebos while performing Cymbeline: for example, Ínogen’s touching “¡Setebos, me encomiendo a tu protección!” / “Setebos, I commend myself to your protection” before she goes to sleep. They also exhibit increasing ancestral interest in human-animal “poder primigenio” / “primordial biopower.” After Belario (Rocio de León) and Guiderio (Ángel Evia) welcome the distressed but resilient Ínogen to their cave in Wales, the actors eagerly break off to experience first-hand the local flora and fauna, encouraged by Dewi: “Ésta es la hora de los pájaros: se acercan a las plantas, buscan espejos de agua para refrescarse … Vamos a poder ver cómo son las aves…” / “It’s the time of day for the birds: they move to the plants, looking for glimmers of water to refresh themselves … We’ll be able to see how the birds are.” 

This deepening rediscovery of companionable bonds in nature (“Ellos somos nosotros” / “They are us”) prepares them for the re-generating vision of the birth of Setebos. Maffía here brilliantly recreates Jupiter’s revelation to Posthumus in Cymbeline, just as her verbal imagery finds crossover birds in Shakespeare’s text and Tehuelche myth: condors, swans, eagles. The mythical rebirth is internalized by the actors in a sequenced metamorphosis. Its first stage is a fast-paced summary of the Setebos myth in the voices of Tehuelche animal-human characters. Then, after Cymbeline's final battle and conclusion of family reconciliations and restored peace with Rome, they act out the Setebos story in an expressionistic dumb-show. It takes place on an elevated platform upstage in spotlit colours behind a transparent screen. Nazca and other South American Indigenous earth-lines, projected onto the screen like rolling clouds, represent greater-than-human communication with animal-spirits and -gods. The spectacle concludes with the actors in  in a tableau vivant of their Tehuelche avatars. 

Leaving off their masks, the actors come down to the front of the stage to address the audience in a montaged epilogue. Teresa adapts a line from Cymbeline that speaks to the actors’ transformation: “Los dedos de los poderes ancestrales afinan la armonía de esta paz” / “The fingers of ancestral powers have tuned the harmony of this peace.” Echoing The Tempest, Ele sums up the experience of Shakespeare en la Patagonia as the vision of a brave new future: “Ha revelado un mundo que no conociamos” / “It has revealed a world we have not known.”

Norberto and Ángeles add that the Tehuelche spirits have now returned to the cloud-capped summit of El Chaltén. And that is why, Ángeles and Dewi explain, the audience’s collaboration in creating this “contrahechizo” or dramatic “counter-spell” was essential: so that “the swan can take flight and carry away these shadows” / “y que el cisne pueda levantar vuelo y llevarse estas sombras.” The actors are now free to return to their homes, ecologically repurposed. By implication, we do the same. 

Reflections on Cimbelino en la Patagonia: Part Two