20th April 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Powerful play on oldest profession

Amada, Arches, Garrison Theatre, 17th September.

THIS short but powerful play, based on the short story Simple Maria by Isabel Allende, is a tribute to the oldest profession, but more than that to the effect of love in a truly elemental form.

From the outset the audience knew this performance was going to be different. The Spanish introduction, quickly translated into English, and the soundtrack by the Spanish guitarist and singer who were on stage throughout, guaranteed that.

The play opened and closed with Maria, a prostitute with a loving nature, on her deathbed. She died, said the narrator, as she had lived, with “delicacy and consideration”. This delicacy was evident throughout the play with the most emotionally-charged scenes played out behind a transparent screen.

This device, where actors were seen illuminated in silhouette, was initially unsettling (as was much of the play), but extremely effective. The stark images playing out the crucial moments – Maria’s parents arguing, her marriage and wedding night, complete with much ecstatic leg-waving, and later the gracefully erotic scenes in the brothel glimpsed as it were through a small window – were all the more meaningful in black and white.

Maria was brought up in a well-off family in South America and might have become a pianist like her mother, but an accident on a railway line, where she fled to escape a row between her parents, left her brain-damaged. The 16-year-old with the mind of a baby was married off to an elderly doctor who would look after her, but it soon became evident (from the maid’s narration) that Maria had “womanly desires”.

But because of those uncontrolled desires Maria was at risk when her husband died. In an effort to keep her safe, her parents packed her with her infant son off on a long voyage to relatives in Spain – but she never arrived. The tragedy of a complete innocent who loved sex and found herself launched into the world then unfolded.

The infant son died in an accident with the travelling trunk (which doubled as a table, piano and later a bar counter) which contained all Maria’s possessions.

And Maria found a lover, a Greek sailor (who had previously played the father, doctor and husband) on board with whom she jumped ship in Cuba. Maria seemed to spend the rest of the play barefoot in a white petticoat, symbolising her innocence and her status bereft of anything – without possessions, parents, child and later without her lover – his body was later found on the shore of the island.

But at the end of the play there was a more measured feel – not happiness, exactly, but a period of peace for Maria as she settled into a brothel. A old “bag of bones” she may have been, but her fame had spread through the world’s seafaring community because she dispensed love, not just sex. She knew her life was effectively over – her lover was not going to come back and her little boy was missing her – and drank her last favourite hot chocolate silhouetted behind the screen alight with the colours of sunset.

It was a moving end to a sad life, a life which reinforced the message that all people really need is love.

The few characters and the versatility of the actors, the minimal props and a breathtaking per­formance from Maria made for a stunning production.

Rosalind Griffiths