“A strong script keeps ‘Cuzco’ interesting, but the actors fail to live up to the words”
It has apparently been seven years since Theatre503 have programmed a piece of theatre in translation, and ‘Cuzco’, a poignant and symbolic play by Valencian playwright Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez, proves an intriguing way to end this hiatus.
Beginning in the Peruvian city of Cuzco, Dilek Rose and Gareth Kieran Jones play an unnamed couple on holiday, passing through Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes on their way to Machu Pichu. Told through scenes in various hotel bedrooms, the couple’s journey of self-discovery quickly turns self-destructive, and, in the end, the fate of their relationship hangs in the balance.
William Gregory’s elegant translation maintains the Spanish background of the characters, allowing the tensions between tourism and a fraught colonial history to come front and centre. As the woman, Dilek Rose wanders the cities’ streets getting into fights with tourists, but bringing an Andean boy to bathe in their hotel room is the final straw for her partner. The woman’s arch frustrated to fulfilled is well-realised and convincingly played by Rose, whereas Jones, increasingly exasperated as the man, seems monochromatic and flat. They never quite gel as a couple, meaning the slow death of their relationship feels a dull inevitability.
Kate O’Connor directs, and in conjunction with Jai Morjaria’s effective lighting, creates some lovely stage imagery, particularly in the woman’s final few scenes bathing and partying. Although the use of monologue in the script offers some eloquent prose for each actor to chew on, the decision to play these stories facing out pulls focus to the audience rather than the couple, and means the impact of the words often fails to land.
A strong script keeps ‘Cuzco’ interesting, but the actors fail to live up to the words, and considering how important chemistry is in two-handers like this, it’s a real shame. Born from the work of the Out of the Wings Collective, Gregory’s translation expertly showcases the vitality of theatre translation, and we can only hope for more theatres to programme work like this.
“The play illustrates the beauty of complexity; of embracing nuance rather than shying away from it”
In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favour of Colorado’s Masterpiece Cakeshop’s decision to refuse service for a same-sex couple, just a month before Iman Quereshi was announced as the winner of Papatango’s 10th Anniversary New Writing Prize with The Funeral Director. Justice Kennedy summarised that ‘Religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression’, though the court did not provide a lasting precedent for religious exemptions for businesses over clients’ sexual orientations. With The Funeral Director, Quereshi defiantly resists such deferral of responsibility. While courts wrangle and tabloids simplify, art rises. What emerges is a triumphant piece of theatre, which, despite its wonderfully stubborn insistence on complete humanisation, retains a deftness to its powerful LGBTQ storyline.
We begin with Ayesha (Aryana Ramkhalawon) and her husband Zeyd (Maanuv Thiara). Stuck in a relatively unspectacular (but not unloving) marriage, the pair manage Ayesha’s family business: an Islamic funeral home. However, when Tom (Tom Morley) arrives with a seemingly simple request — for them to provide a dignified service for his late boyfriend, their refusal leads to cultural and religious disarray. When Ayesha’s childhood friend-turned-lawyer Janey (Jessica Clark) returns to care for her own mother, the incident’s ramifications expand further. The play becomes an exploration of modern British identity and perception. Clark’s warmly charismatic Janey represents an increasingly secularised London elite: professional, liberal, firm, but fiercely inclusive and just. Her condescension towards the ‘backwards people’ of her hometown crumbles so as not to create an overpowering division of ‘us and them’ — incidentally, the racialised dynamic Zeyd fears from the British media.
This is the play’s most complex and successful negotiation. In creating Zeyd as a genuinely caring and pragmatic character, director Hannah Hauer King avoids a descent into generalisation. His homophobia is condemnable from the outset, but his dilemma embodies the encroachment of community pressure upon personal belief — forces managed with ease by the constantly endearing Thiara. He would love his own child regardless of its sexuality, but he cannot face the wider fallout from the Muslim community. Although this selectivity is hardly a foundation for sincere tolerance, it allows the play to develop the ideas of personal spirituality and ideological emancipation which we hope eventually touch Zeyd too: a loving Allah would not want Muslims to suffer persecution owing to their sexuality and loves all, Ayesha explains at the close.
Again though, the play is woven with a precision which rightly champions the voices of its queer characters. Morley’s anguish as Tom prompts Ayesha’s transformation, but it is his boyfriend’s faith who provides the reasoning. Even in absence, his power is devastating, embodying the strength of queer Muslims while symbolising trauma’s potential results in the fight for existence. The play illustrates the beauty of complexity; of embracing nuance rather than shying away from it. Queer intersectionality’s very foundations within British society are questioned and embraced under the lights of Southwark Playhouse. The result is mesmerising.