Nearly three weeks ago, Chilean theatre company Teatro La Resentida put up the show The Imagination of the Future at The O.P.E.N. Described by Ong Keng Sen as a performance that reminded him of theatre in Singapore in the 90s, The Imagination of the Future is a physical and highly imaginative, outrageous performance that takes audiences on a journey to the different paths of history if only we could turn back time. Read on as one of our ambassadors, Wong Jinyi, shares her thoughts about the performance.
I was confused about how to write this review at first, because there was so much to say and there were words for none of them. It only started becoming easier when I stopped approaching it from the angle of politics and satire and seeing it as a play about grief, and its worthlessness. After that, things became easier.
In 1973, the president of Chile killed himself, and army general Augusto Pinochet, established a brutal regime last lasted 17 years, becoming directly responsible for the forced disappearance of over 30 000 people and the deaths of hundreds of thousands more. The Imagination of the Future is marketed as attempting to create and alternate version of history, in which Pinochet never came to power. While not a lie, this description is pretty misleading. For one thing, it implies, without outright suggesting, images of a hopeful nation, and a saccharine, almost indulgent need to whitewash tragedy and rewrite history into a more palatable form. Do not be deceived. This is a play with very little sentimentality.
The play uses largely satirical devices to make its point, at least at first. It begins with Salvador Allende, is making what we know to be his final speech. This is where the similarities to historical fact end. At this point, the ministers of the cabinet interrupt the broadcast, insisting that the broadcast is not “appealing” to a wider audience and that the president makes the necessary changes. Panic ensues. The ministers, sycophantic ad rowdy to begin with, begin a brutal decline into outright mania and psychopathy. Amidst all this, Allende is ineffectual, while well-meaning, a puppet reduced to sleeping behind his wheelchair by the end of the first act, after which the real meat of the play begins.
What follows is a surrealistic dreamscape, illogical, grotesque, feverishly intense. It becomes difficult to tell which layer of reality in which the sequences take place. The first seemingly completely serious sequence is interrupted by a darkly comic musical number featuring an effeminate metrosexual draped in aluminium, which ends with the brain hemmorage of a young boy. Fluids are expelled onto the audience at one point. It is all absurd and visceral and very, very bitter. Because above all, what this manic display achieves, chiefly, is to impress on the audience that the failures of the Pinochet dictatorship had its roots in flaws that predated the coup, fissures which were partly responsible for the coup itself, that destroyed Allende’s government, that still permeate the Chile of today. The play unusually shows deep empathy towards the people of Chile, while being deeply critical of the systems they have built and unthinkingly continue to support.
What the play truly attacks, however, is the cult of nostalgia and the martyrdom of Salvador Allende. Throughout the play, Allende is completely passive, dominated by his incompetent, drug fueled ministers. At the point where he finally attempts to stand up for himself, the bombs drop: the enemy has arrived. All the debate, of idealism, and theories, and placating different parties, has achieved nothing but to waste precious time. The ministers leave Allende in disgust, and the president is still left to face his own doom.
The crux of the play’s message, I feel, is the criticism of what the director sees as the passivity of the Chilean people, the dependence on the idea that Salvador Allende could have been the one who may have saved Chile. No, the play rages eloquently, no. Yes, he tried. Yes, he cared deeply about the country. So what, the play asks. Yes, Salvador Allende might have been able to make Chile a powerful country on his own terms. But he didn’t. He died before he could do that, and that is the point. Allende died, the people Pinochet killed are dead, and the living are spending their time mourning the death of a failed politician as opposed to working towards reparations for the family of the lost. Instead of working to fix a country where children are killed by stray bullets everyday, Chile is obsessed with the presence of an imaginary alternate country, where everyone lives happily, safely. If only that trigger hadn’t been pulled. If only.
“If only” is not enough for the producers of this play, and it is not enough for Chile. The production is steeped in grief, but this grief is vengeful, bitter instead of numbing. It is messy and bloody and spills over in all the scenes of chaos. It is depicted in scenes where Chileans hurt each other to alleviate their own pain, by using each other to feed their own self-loathing. It is depicted in the brutal deaths the innocent in the play suffer, the cartoonish greed of the politicians, the mocking of the audience, who, after all, fall into the trap of wanting to see the illusory promised land of Salvador Allende. “Are you happy,” says one of the ministers to
Allende, facing down his last moments. “Are you happy, leaving us to all this?” “You had a beautiful dream for your country,” says another character, at the climatic point. “A beautiful dream, but you failed. Did you really think we could it, or was it just a whim?”
“Salvador is frightened,” the character continues, monotone. “He is frightened, he is not ready to die. He takes comfort, for a moment, in the fact that he will be remembered, worshipped as a martyr, that his name will be remembered, while those of the thousands that will disappear will not be.” The enemy approaches; Allende opens his mouth to speak, but it is too late. It will always be too late.
It is impossible to put into words what the play was. It is impossible to quantify in words what it achieved primarily by showing the utter uselessness of words in a world run amok, a world absurd and ruined and above all betrayed. Because almost 42 years ago, the president of Chile died, and his hope for a great country died with it. No what ifs, no imaginings, no dreams can quantify the grief that ensued, and the play mocks those who believe that they can. The tragedy of “The Imagination of the Future” is not only that of the thousands that were lost, it is also the tragedy of a country that continues to live in the shadow of that loss and a numbing, pacifying illusion that one man could have saved them from all their pain. We were abandoned, the play proclaims. We were despised and destroyed and forgotten. Now we bury our dead, and live, without platitudes, without martyrs, only with the knowledge that what is gone is gone, and that the only way left for us, is forward.