Five Rooms and Two Dances: Francachela Teatro’s Peccata Minuta

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

Francachela Teatro‘s performance, Peccata Minuta, starts with the audience loitering in a large public space, the former assembly hall of an ex-Primary school that’s now become a complex of artists’ studios, exhibition and performance spaces and (not entirely coincidentally) the current home of Hatch itself. Or perhaps it starts when we begin to notice individuals among our number dressed differently to the rest of us, three women and two men wearing the slightly archaic formal attire of another time, perhaps the 1940s or 1950s, carrying suitcases. These characters seem to have emerged from an old film or photograph, and soon enough they differentiate themselves, their movements increasingly purposeful. They furtively hand us yellow pages folded into paper planes and whisper into our ears that we should write “our weakness” onto them, then they gather the planes back into their suitcases and lock them shut. As the suitcases are being collected, for some kind of implied processing, one woman refuses to relinquish hers and a choreographed dance/scuffle ensues, cases thrown from one person to another, or put into the hands of an audience member for safe-keeping then retreived.

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Eventually, the suitcases stand in a small pile. At this point, the characters appear to move from conflict to complicity, exaggerated dance-style movements to a more naturalistic manner. They eye up the rest of us, unfurl white ropes and gather us into a series of small groups, each tied to a particular performer, like a group of climbers roped together, then led off into some other part of the building. This is where our collective experience of the performance fragments, each group now destined to see the sections that are to come in a different order, perhaps with variations and changes in emphasis. For my part, I’m among those led away by a mustachioed 1950s businessman type, who drags us towards the studio toilets, where we’re confronted by a mirror balanced on top of a chest of drawers, this in turn surrounded by pin-up newspaper cuttings and grooming products: a kind of downbeat beauty parlour where this uptight middle manager will shed his respectable mask (and a few layers of clothes) to expose himself as a corset-wearing embodiment of masochistic vanity.

Francachela Teatro's Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Francachela Teatro’s Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

He takes off his coat and shirt, inviting us to unbutton and hold the garments. He gets one audience member to lather his face in shaving cream, hands another a razor and demands that they scrape at his stubble. Once shaved, he slaps cologne on his cheeks and neck and rubs it into the hands of those around him. Assailed by self-loathing, he kneels and demands that someone slap him, then reverts to seeking approval again, like a little dog. Eventually, perhaps disgusted by his own indulgence of weakness, he becomes the kind of Franco or Salazar-era stereotype of respectable hyper-conformist manhood so often skewered by Luis Bunuel, Pedro Almodovar and Paula Rego, among many others: then he pushes everyone out into the corridor and slams the door on us, as though to privately contemplate his own true nature.

Francachela Teatro's Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Francachela Teatro’s Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

As we proceed up a flight of stairs to the next room, taking seats in a messy office where the lampshade seems broken and papers are strewn around the floor, another familiar fictional type appears, a young woman in a sober work suit and blouse who seems to have had rather too much to drink at some office party where everyone else went home hours ago. We become her captive audience as she feeds us grapes, swigs wine from the bottle, dances (or, more accurately, fails to dance), tenderly opens a red heart-shaped velvet box in an atypical display of sentimentality, then plunges back into the fray, desperately seeking the approval of romantic interest. Or maybe not even that, just some indication that someone, anyone, here likes her, even though her behaviour slips in and out of control, making any answer to her questions or even the slightest response to her actions feel like a risky venture. As before, self-loathing or anger seems to kick in and we’re sent on our way again, to another room.

Francachela Teatro’s Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Francachela Teatro’s Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Here, a different woman now kneels before an image of the Virgin, sheds her dressing gown and stockings, whips herself with rosary beads and gets someone to pour hot wax on her bare skin, all the while veering persuasively between delight in her self indulgence and disgust at her own actions. She sends us away, slipping her dressing gown back on, and kneels in front of the Virgin, now  more by way of seeking forgiveness, it seems, than the piety she seemed to embody as we entered. Once again, as with the closeted machismo of the upstanding businessman, there are very evident echoes of Luis Bunuel and Pedro Almodovar in this vision of religious observance as a kind of sexual perversion, which leads me to wonder if these are archetypes whose broadly recognised characteristics are being played with, the basic ‘stock’ characters of much Spanish film and fiction being consciously deployed, or – not excluding that possibility – the kinds of people who have become stereotypes simply because they exist in large enough numbers to have been noticed by many different artists in many different ways over the years?

Francachela Teatro's Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Francachela Teatro’s Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Whichever it is, the next phase sees us led in single file down a winding staircase into a basement, set with a mirror, table and chairs, plates and glasses and a dish of cherry tomatoes, where a third woman seems to be agitated, nervously waiting for us to arrive. She’s a little older than the others, dressed glamorously but possessed by a kind of maternal concern as she draws out a chair, invites one of us to sit with her as she pours wine, serves up tomatoes, and beckons her chosen companion to eat. While her companion seems hestitant, she begins to daintily eat and drink herself, as though giving permission, but quickly devours not just her own glass and plate of food, but reaches over for her companion’s too. Oscillating between outright gluttony and demure denial, as though the acts we’ve just witnessed have never occurred, she (like her companions in other rooms) seems to be finally consumed by regret, sending us away while looking despairingly and ashamedly at herself in that mirror beside the table. Her performance is, in fact, so persuasive that some of the audience hangs back to give her the reassurance she seems to need.

Francachela Teatro’s Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Francachela Teatro’s Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

The final stage in our particular itinerary (bearing in mind that this will have the first for some groups, and somewhere in the middle for others) is perhaps the most powerful of all, and it’s certainly Peccata Minuta‘s wildest card. We find ourselves cramped together in a tiny space underneath a staircase, while a ‘Russian’ pilot, resembling some escapee from a second world war POW camp, sets up a circle of drinking shots, gambling routines involving struck matches, then finally pulls out a loaded revolver, upping the stakes to a game of Russian Roulette. The confined space, low light and sheer presence of the weapon itself leads many to refuse to even touch the gun, let alone hold it to their own head and pull the trigger, as our host demands, bribing us with shots to get us in the mood and dishing out jugs of cold water to refuseniks as something that might be meant as a punishment, or might be a make-believe version of trying to get us all drunk enough to play by his rules. When the revolver comes my way, I try to imagine what I’d do if this were a real situation: so I put the barrel to the Russian’s own forehead, and when his response is to spread his arms in invitation, pull the trigger.

Francachela Teatro's Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Francachela Teatro’s Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

The final phase of the performance sees the Russian strap on an accordeon and lead us all, like a sort of newly benign pied piper, back out into the building, where we gradually converge with the other groups, each led by the character they’d ended their own particular variation on the tour with. There’s a long dance session, an attempt to create a sense of connection and lightness in an open space after the various single encounters in confined spaces, and with that accomplished, the suitcases return, along with those yellow paper planes we’d inscribed our own weaknesses on at the beginning – our ‘peccadilloes’, as the literal translation of the title would have it. We are led outside and invited to launch them into the fresh air, as though symbolically releasing ourselves from their control. It ends there, or at least it seems to, because there’s applause. But perhaps it really ends when the paper planes and all our freely offered confessions are gathered up from wherever they’d landed to be returned to those leather suitcases. Who knows what might be done with all that knowledge about our weaknesses, were someone with sinister motivations to get hold of them?

Francachela Teatro's Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Francachela Teatro’s Peccata Minuta [photo credit Julian Hughes]

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