Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Review These Trees Are Made Of Blood

These Trees Are Made Of Blood
Book by Paul Jenkins
Music and Lyrics by Darren Clark

That Was The Kidnapping And Murder That Was

The legacy of the Cold War years in South America is still very much with us with issues unresolved.

In 2015, director Amy Draper with writer Paul Jenkins and songwriter Darren Clark set about putting on stage "a political musical cabaret" about the Mothers Of The Plaza de Mayo who still stalwartly protest against the terrible abuses of the Argentinian regime at that time.

We didn't see The Trees Are Made Of Blood two years ago, but now the team behind the show, led by the same director, has revived it on a two-tier cabaret stage, designed by Georgina Lowe and Alex Berry, at Dalston's Arcola Theatre.

The headscarved women in the Plaza are the mothers of "The Disappeared",  many of them student activists, abducted by the military, raped, tortured and murdered in numbers estimated, according to Wikipedia, at anything from 7,000 to 30,000 between the 1970s and 1980s during Argentina's "Dirty War".

TLT has to be honest that she found the portrayal of these terrifying times channelling a nipple-tassel drag act, magic, stand up and turns seemingly trying to emulate the Cold War era British show That Was The Week That Was less than compelling.

Yet like many a musical, it's the book rather then  the music, lyrics, musicanship and singing, arranged by the composer for the band of Rosalind Ford, Neil Kelso, Eilon Morris, Anne-Marie Piazza and Josh Sneesby, which is the weak link.

The British creators  of These Trees Are Made Of Blood (a good title but rather at odds with the cabaret concept) are undoubtedly passionate about the subject. Even so, the cabaret veers  towards the generic. It feels  as if it is borrowing its cabaret structure rather than finding its own shape and voice.

In giving little or no hints about previous Argentinian history and culture, this piece, despite all the subsequent disturbing delving into the torture chambers, feels  uncontextualised and even sometimes skewed. So, for example, a British aspect to the story late on probably unintentionally gives Britain an almost heroic status. 

The combination of satirical cabaret and the more straightforwardly affecting tale of mother (Ellen O'Grady) and daughter (Charlotte Worthing) also sits rather awkwardly together.

Yet in the latter tale, when the General with great coat and epaulets who hosts the Coup Coup Cabaret and perpetrates countless crimes, is reduced to an aged civilian in a cardigan and slacks, the narrative has the potential to become piercingly insightful.

However reduced to the thinnest outline, with too neat an ending, this part of the play was almost  drowned out by the preceding sometimes over-egged cabaret set pieces.

There are still  more thoughtful, ambiguous lines within the cabaret. For example a mother-in-law joke indicating the deep structures of anti communism and a lawyers' network geared towards cover ups - but it feels too much like a throwaway line rather than hooking into the story,

OK, not all the audience have lived through the age of the  books, newspaper articles and documentaries which emerged some years ago covering the subject. These Trees Are Made Of Blood is certainly a solid introduction to this shameful history.

Nevertheless it could be a lot shorter and more pointed with the songs part of a tighter structure.

The problems, which have also now emerged concerning the children of kidnapping and rape, the grandchildren of the Mothers, are not even touched upon. It therefore feels merely expedient to take what should be a heartfelt slogan "Never Again" to end suddenly a meandering book and we give it an amber light.    

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