Tim Winter

Review: HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS at Cervantes Theatre

The House of the Spirits Isabelle Allende's much-loved first novel, 'La casa de los espiritus' published in Spanish in 1982 and translated into English (and over 37 other languages) as 'The House of the Spirits', was made into a film in 1993. Directed by a Dane (Bille August) the starry (mis)cast included only one main actor of Spanish origin (Antonio Banderas). It wasn't well received.

The current production, running at the lovely Cervantes Theatre in Southwark, is credited as by Caridad Svich, based on the novel by Allende. Her Spanish version from 2009 was well received and toured many Latin American countries after its opening in New York. In 2011 she adapted it again for English speaking audiences and won the American Theatre Critics Prize for her troubles. You can see both versions here, played by an excellent cast of bi-lingual actors, on alternative nights.

The story is an epic family drama set in an unnamed South American country that everyone knows is really Chile where Allende was brought up; and covers 50 years of the country's history, from the post-colonial 1920s to the political upheavals of the 1970s that resulted in Margaret Thatcher's favourite dictator and mass murderer, General Augusto Pinochet, gaining power through a U.S backed military coup. Pinochet was still in power when Allende, in exile in Venezuela, wrote her novel which might explain why she couldn't be more specific about where it was set but it's also a depressingly familiar story that has happened too often and not just in Latin America.

The play charts the rise and fall of the Trueba family and hinges, really, on the marriage of Clara del Valle and Esteban Rueda who was meant to marry Clara's sister Rosa the Beautiful, a union that couldn't take place when Rosa dies in mysterious circumstances. We've seen Clara grow up from an excitable 9 year old, to a thoughtful, strong mature woman. We also know that she has special powers of clairvoyance and telekinesis and has the gift of seeing the Spirits of the title. Much was made of the 'magic realism' in Allende's novel, Svich wisely plays this down;  some ghostly wind chimes and Clara's visions add atmosphere and a touch of mystery to the very realistic story she wants to tell.

It's a story of love and treachery, monstrous men and magnificent women, betrayal and idealism. The excellent cast of twelve, some in multiple roles, guide us through the complexities of this generational saga under Paula Paz's strong direction. It's wrong to single anyone out but Constanta Ruff as Clara is pivotal to the success of the show. Raul Fernandez as the tyrannical Esteban manages to invest some humanity in the character and Alejandra Costa is mesmeric as the prostitute Transito, the cool, calm, still voice that survives the chaos around her.

The original music by Yaiza Varona might sometimes overwhelm the actors but to very little detriment, its electronica-meets-minimalist string quartet is thrilling and effective. The set design by Alejandro Andujar convinces as both torture chamber and comfortable family home, hacienda and grand town house, the muted greys and browns enhanced by Nigel A. Lewis' lighting design. All the colour of the evening comes from the actors and the multi-layered, poetic, engrossing script.