Out of Spain: Sheriff comes off second best in an artistic shootout

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The Independent Online
MADRID - It was a simple enough plot, a cabaret with touches of pantomime on a strongly satirical foundation. There was a talking bear, a walking berry tree and a nasty gun-toting sheriff who kept the other two in line.

They lived in a town called Madrid, in the heart of the old city centre, where drugs, prostitution and delinquency were rife. That's where the sheriff came in. He was going to clean up the town, make it fit for decent folks to live in. With his pistol as the only law, he silenced the talking bear and petrified the walking tree.

It was called Cabaret Castizo, or 'Authentic Cabaret' and quickly began pulling in crowds after it opened on 5 January at the Alfil cafe-theatre in the seedy back streets of central Madrid. Subtlety was never its claim to fame.

The bear and the berry tree are the city's symbols. And, as if the audience had not already guessed, many of the sheriff's lines had an extremely familiar ring. They had been taken from press clippings quoting Angel Matanzo, the controversial city councillor for the bustling Centro district where the theatre is located.

A former butcher, Mr Matanzo discovered a few years back that you can cut and carve in politics without showing blood on your hands. Representing the conservative Partido Popular (PP), which controls Madrid, he is legendary for what the daily El Pais recently called his 'simple solutions to complex problems. If drug addicts are shooting up on the benches of a city square, take away the benches.'

The theatre's directors were not entirely surprised when they received a 'notice of closure' from Mr Matanzo, saying the theatre would be closed down and sealed at 10am on Monday 18 January because it did not have a full bar licence and because its chairs were not anchored to the floor according to cafe-theatre regulations.

Isn't that exactly what the 'sheriff' would have done? The directors appealed for support among the liberal art world. By 9am on the day of the would-be closure, the Alfil was packed with leading Spanish celebrities, from television stars and pop singers to actors and film director Pedro Almodovar, for a special protest matinee of Cabaret Castizo.

Almodovar spoke of a kind of 'Oslo syndrome' among city politicians, accusing them of trying to kill off Madrid's Latin cultural feel and turn it into the kind of north European town where it is forbidden to run a bath after 10pm. Madrid's mayor, Jose Maria Alvarez, who had at first supported the closure, and the PP's national leader, Jose Maria Aznar, sniffed more than a minor local embarrassment. After all, Madrid's 3 million people will vote this year nationally on whether they think Mr Aznar and his party are fit to take over from Felipe Gonzalez's Socialists.

The mayor allowed the cabaret to continue and gave the theatre two weeks to meet cafe-theatre standards. His power questioned, Mr Matanzo said he would resign, then changed his mind. The word within the party was he might soon have it changed back for him by Mr Aznar, who suggested that, for the time being, he should take a holiday.

The young PP leader sees such old-time conservatives as an embarrassment in his efforts to capture the spreading middle political ground in Spain. An embarrassment but perhaps a necessary evil. It is, after all, not by chance but by popular vote that Mr Matanzo is councillor for the Centro district, where drugs are sold and consumed openly, prostitutes are wall to wall and most Madrilenos are wary of walking at night.

While the generally left-wing celebrities were protesting and proclaiming 'freedom of speech' in and around the theatre last week, the mood in surrounding flats and bars was in sharp contrast. 'We don't want junkies shooting up on our doorsteps. How are our kids going to grow up?' asked one neighbour. 'We need Matanzo more than we need theatres.' It may take more to run the sheriff out of town.