Ay, Carmela!

José Sanchis Sinisterra, translated by John London
Cervantes Theatre

Madalena Alberto as Carmela Credit: Elena Molina
Flag of the Spanish Republic

This play by an award-winning Spanish dramatist is about two Republican entertainers caught in Nationalist territory during the Spanish Civil War. Written in 1986, it was filmed by Carlos Saura in 1990 and had a York Theatre Royal production which toured the UK in 2006. Now there is a chance to see it in the original Spanish as well as in the English translation reviewed here.

Paulino (Ivanhoe Norona) is an operatic tenor who, due to the war situation, has been made to get a living as a variety artiste touring with his flamenco dancer wife Carmela (Madalena Alberto), exploiting a talent he is ashamed of: being able to fart at will.

That may sounds like a comedy, but this is the opposite, for Nationalist forces made a rapid advance and the couple found themselves in the hands of the Fascists. Ay, Carmela doesn’t just refer to the character in this play: a Spanish audience would recognise it as a song that was adopted and adopted by soldiers of the Republican army and that proud resistance is key to this play. Director Paula Paz gives us a reminder of the situation with a montage of film clips as a prologue of marching soldiers, suffering civilians, battle scenes and atrocities.

The play proper starts with a glimpse of Carmela sitting at a piano before she gets up and disappears into darkness. Then Paulino enters, shuffling forward across the dark stage to switch on the stage lights. He seems unfamiliar with this place, discovering a gramophone that seems not to be working and a piano and opening a music stool pulls out a flag, the flag of the Republic. But is he really in an unknown theatre or is this a man who has been traumatised?

When Carmela reappears, it seems that they have been separated, she has come from a different place, had different experiences, and it isn’t long before it becomes clear that she is dead.

The action now flows between past and present, mind and memory. Paulino is trying to sort out the lighting with an Italian lieutenant in the control box, bickering with Carmela who is teasing him about a handsome soldier she’s been flirting with (a soldier whose head has been split open). Paulino is trying to rehearse the show that he has rapidly put together on the Nationalists' orders, a show where half of the audience are Republican prisoners who are going to be shot in the morning, the rest Italian and German fascists who are part of the Nationalist army.

Ivanhoe Norona makes Paulino a bundle of nerves. Compared with Madalena Alberto’s Carmela, he’s a wimp; she confidently carries on, isn’t scared about what she says, but “you’re dead,” he says, “you don’t have to take sides.”

It is with that grotesque command performance, Paulino’s professionalism in tatters, Carmela the dazzling dancer letting heart defiantly overrule sense, that we learn in full what Paulino is having to live with.

Though the play seems to take place in Paulino’s mind and his audience aren’t really there, Sinisterra makes his terrified incompetence go on too long: in real life his new masters would have booted him off, or at least been jeering (yet we do hear the Republican prisoners). That is a small fault in a play that encapsulates the situation of living a life of pretence, of denial under an alien regime and makes a plea through Carmela that we don’t forget out history; we owe it to the dead that the facts should be known and the truth revealed.

There are performances of Ay, Carmela! in Spanish (Monday to Wednesday) and in English (Thursday to Saturday) with different casts.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton