Autoreverse (Battersea Arts Centre)

Autoreverse (Battersea Arts Centre, until February 22nd)

⭐⭐⭐⭐

The importance of remembering – and forgetting – and identifying where you truly call your home are key themes in a fascinating and powerful audio-visual theatrical experience at Battersea Arts Centre as part of an impressive Going Global spring season.

As much a general plea to listen to the stories of our forebears as it is a personal journey through her family’s life in South America (and, indeed, the tale of the country itself), Florencia Cordeu has created a captivating piece of performance art in Autoreverse.

Using extracts from cassette tapes stored at her family home in Chile, Cordeu learns about the past and rediscovers her present as she reflects on what she hears on the tapes, featuring voices of various family members who escaped the cruel Argentinian regime in the 1970s but were forced apart as a result.

An array of cassette players in a living room are used to play the various tapes (all credit to Elena Pena at the sound desk for making this so realistic), which stirs recollections of growing up, and evokes memories of a bygone age, feelings of safety and home.

The set (Rajha Shakiry) is so convincing the audience feels it has mistakenly wandered into someone’s apartment rather than into a performance in the Centre’s Members’ Bar.

What is poignant is that to anyone else these recordings mean little – as Cordeu herself admits they “capture the banal, the everyday.” But we soon come to realise the importance of these tapes – love letters between family members living apart which capture moments in time to be played on other days in other places.

We start to learn something about the history of the “silvery nation” through the voices of people who regarded it as their home and lived through the reality of fighting for freedom and standing up for truth. There’s an amusing aside as Cordeu apologies humbly when a clip of Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina from Evita starts to play – for many in the audience, this British musical may well be their one and only  experience of Argentina save for the tango. As the tape gets caught in the player we understand that the history of Argentina has been all tangled up in a knot.

Director Omar Elerian allows the personal essence of the story to develop and flow naturally as Cordeu shares centre stage with the voices of the past, though references to the analogue reality of old cassette tapes (which have a limited life span) seem odd when it is clear that CDs or digitally recorded versions of the tapes are being played.

But it is easy to look beyond that as we picture a natural flow of thoughts and images falling onto the iron oxide of the tape, which allows a sense of “being there while not being there and seeing things with the ears.”

Not only do the recordings – and, by extension, the show – attempt to rescue and make sense of everyday life but serve a purpose of remembering what may have otherwise been forgotten.

A recurring motif of a tree – Cordeu brings on a bonsai, which she wishes could be planted outside rather than sitting on a table in a pot to allow it to grow freely and unconstrained – serves as a significant metaphor. She tends it with the notion that it is important to try to keep things alive, as important for plants as it is for memories.

With the first recording played serving as a narrative (the performer recorded it in her flat last year) there’s an intriguing question posed about looking to the future and being what you want to be – a publicity image for the production of a little girl dressed as Wonder Woman has relevance as the play continues.

The closing scene, which considers what is truly our home and how we build it up, adds depth to a show that is already thought-provoking.

The overall impact of this well-devised show is touching, even where there’s a feeling another culture might find it difficult to share the experiences and full understand the implication of all the memories. But the raw emotions being experienced by Cordeu as she performs are something that we can tune into whoever and wherever we may be.

David Guest

Images: Alex Brenner

A version of this review originally appeared on The Spy in the Stalls http://www.thespyinthestalls.com/

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