THEATRE / Spanish flights: Tom Morris reviews Els Joglars' Yo Tengo un Tio en America in Edinburgh

Here at last is an intelligent theatrical response to the 500th anniversary of Columbus's expedition to the Americas. I Have an Uncle in America by the controversial Catalan company Els Joglars is a winning comedy, a joyful dance spectacle and a powerful political allegory. .

The director, designer and choreographer, Robert Boadella, has transported the story of Columbus's discovery into a modern- day mental hospital. During a drama therapy session in the hospital's gym, represented by a forest of exercise ropes hanging from the ceiling, the paranoid visionary Manola creates a dramatic fantasy in which the patients become a tribe of South American Indians. Seven rather stagy lunatics respond with character-based comedy according to their respective illnesses. Espasa, a savant with an encyclopaedic memory, provides historical details of the Spanish conquest; the autistic musician Jordi improvises accompaniments; the nymphomaniac Pacqui fantasises that she gives birth to the entire tribe. The identification of their besieged world with that of the Indians takes root in the minds of the mad: when the doctors return to take their temperatures, they are resplendent as 15th-century, Spanish conquistadors brandishing enormous syringes.

By presenting the mass delusion of the lunatics as stage reality, Boadella creates intricate patterns of surreal allegory for the audience. The syringes are swords, electro-convulsive therapy is cultural indoctrination, and madness is merely difference. But Boadella also plays games with the theatrical illusion he creates. Conde, a pyromaniac, becomes a broker between the two worlds of the play, pleading with the cowering lunatic-Indians to recognise the flamenco-dancing conquistadors as doctors. But the wealth of theatrical evidence is against him and it is Conde, the compromiser, who appears mad.

The detailed comedy is punctuated by dance sequences which give the production an irresistible appeal. The dangling ropes are woven by the madmen into a series of giant tree-like cat's-cradles, framing the frenzied routines of the doctor-conquistadors. Every sequence draws spontaneous stamping and applause from the audience. But even this sense of spectacle is carefully worked by Boadella into the allegory of power. The dramatic sympathy of the play is with the besieged lunatic-Indians, but through the intoxicating chemistry of dance, the audience is repeatedly won to the side of Hernan Cortez and his merry men.

Boadella's management of this culture-clash has caused a storm in Spain, where the play's political implications caused its removal from the Seville Festival. The music and dance of the Indians are traditional Catalan; the flamenco style of the doctors is high Spanish imperialist. It can be read as an outcry for Catalan independence.

This gives the play obvious political ironies in Scotland, but its spectacular impact ensures that its attack on power is not parochial. The agony of conquest is presented as a trap in which the audience is caught, and from which the only release is surrealism, which Boadella handles like a master.

(Photograph omitted)

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