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Guest Blog: Director/Adaptor Daniel Goldman on THEBES LAND

Daniel Goldman in rehearsal

Three years ago I saw the original Uruguayan production of Thebes Land in Colombia and came out physically shaking with joy at what it was doing as a piece of theatre. It is simultaneously a moving, funny and at times shocking play about patricide and a moving, funny and always surprising play about the act of making theatre. But what is most special about the show is that it blurs the boundaries between fiction and truth. It is, as writer Sergio Blanco describes, a work of auto-fiction.

Auto-fiction, as Sergio puts it, is the fictionalisation of self. In Thebes Land, a playwright goes to interview a young man, Martin, who has killed his father and is serving a life sentence in prison, in order to write a play about the case. He then begins to devise and rehearse said play, Thebes Land, throughout Thebes Land itself.

Because the play is a work of auto-fiction, the playwright is based on Sergio. The writer is a fictionalised version of Sergio, writing about the creative process of making Thebes Land. And Thebes Land is itself a fictionalised version of Thebes Land. If you're confused, please don't worry. Every step of the way, Thebes Land seeks to fictionalise truth. I've done a count of the different levels of fictionalised truth that it contains and so far, I'm up to about 27 different realities.

In the same vein as films such as The Usual Suspects, Adaptation, Synecdoche and Inception, Thebes Land sets up a world with definite rules and goes on to break them with gleeful joy. Over time you may think you've got a handle on something and then that thing turns out to be a little less certain that you might first have thought. And it's great fun.

What makes the play much more than a box of tricks is that even though realities shift and the rules keep changing, the play's heart never does. That's what makes it so moving. And at its heart, the play tells two very simple stories. The first is the story of a writer and a young patricide who meet every week on a prison basketball court and, if they start in fear and mistrust, learn to love and accept the other. The second is the story of a rehearsal process, where an established theatre-maker, our writer, begins to devise a show with a young inexperienced actor, and the journey this time is a journey of respect and acceptance of the other as equal.

Thebes Land in rehearsal

For all that this play deals with the terrifying act of patricide, and the manner in which Martin kills his dad is truly shocking, at a much more fundamental level, Thebes Land is actually about how we can act with kindness and compassion and love. It's about breaking down the cages and the walls we put up around ourselves. And we all do.

In making this new version of the show, we visited Belmarsh Prison and met with our Martin, just as Sergio met his Martin in Uruguay. Our characters, the writer and the actor have been rewritten as fictionalised versions of the two actors cast in the show. Our show takes place here in the UK rather than in its original Uruguayan setting.

In writing the translation I sought not only to re-contextualise the setting and references from Uruguay to the UK, but to also translate the original experience of making the show. In some ways, I set out to rewrite it as if I was Sergio.

Jorge Luis Borges, one of Latin America's most important and recognised writers, wrote a short story called The Don Quijote of Pierre Menard. In it, Pierre Menard, a French 20th-century writer, rewrites Don Quijote, word for word. He doesn't copy it. He simply reimagines himself as Cervantes, relives Cervantes's life imaginatively and from said experiences rewrites his most famous text. And a fictional reviewer declares that Pierre Menard's version is the better text than Cervantes, even though every word is the same, because it is a greater work of imagination, especially by a writer writing in his second language.

Now, not for one minute will I claim that this translation and this production is the greater work, but what I can say is that it has been a joy to be Pierre Menard to Sergio's Cervantes. And then again, of course, much of what I have written here is itself fiction.

Thebes Land is at Arcola Theatre 30 November- 23 December

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

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From This Author Guest Blog: Daniel Goldman