Bohemian LightsMiz Hashimoto

It isn’t often that one gets to see Valle-Inclán performed outside of Spain. I suppose the sheer difficulty of translating a whole cultural framework and understanding of life to foreign audiences would put off many a director. The ADC’s production of this play, therefore, is a big feat, and a brave one too. As a born-and-raised Madrileña myself, and lover of Valle-Inclán’s writing, I couldn’t wait to experience this ADC lateshow for myself.

Bohemian Lights tells the story of Max, a true bohemian poet. Elderly, tired and blind, Max walks the streets of Madrid for one last time before his demise. Although somewhat flimsy and unconvincing throughout the first few scenes of the play, Max (Robin McFarland) steals the show during the poet’s first nocturnal promenade down the labyrinthine streets of Madrid. The actor’s deep, resonating voice, along with a characteristic beard, cane and opaque glasses successfully portray the image of a drunken yet extremely lucid character. In particular, his conversations with Rubén Darío, the deceased Nicaraguan poet, about what it means to be an artist transcended significantly above other parts of the play.  During the protagonist’s monologue on the angst of the troubled writer, the audience burst into laughter. McFarland’s intonation and gesticulation was all that it needed to be: genuine, forthright and bold. 

Yet is impossible to understand the complex works of Valle-Inclán without a good interpretation of “esperpento”. This dramatic device, the playwright’s own development, is one of the cornerstones of Spanish theatre. “Esperpento” is truly a work of the Spanish dramatic tradition. This is naturally more noticeable in the original, where Valle-Inclán’s notable use of bouts of Madrid colloquialisms and vulgar language turn Bohemian Lights into a very localised play, encompassed within its own cultural context, from where it is virtually impossible to extract.  Therefore, it is remarkable that the grotesque and absurd traits of Spanish society as Valle-Inclán intended them to be haven’t been lost in translation. Epitomised by Max’s tirade on “concave mirrors” towards the end of the play, covered in tin foil on stage for the desired absurd effect, this ADC lateshow production conveys Valle-Inclán’s acerbic wit and scathing critique of Spanish society smoothly and surely, making it all seem effortless.

The cast and crew were successful in representing the systematic deformation of 1920s Madrid’s reality, along with Valle-Inclán’s scathing social criticism. The directorial decision of adorning every member of the cast with an array of fairy lights appeared a bit strange at first. Nevertheless, it was one way of emphasising the grotesque and absurd traits of the characters, to the point where the play’s deformity becomes rather uncomfortable for the audience to witness.

The play’s acerbic wit was also displayed by the characterisation of the many personalities within the play. Archetypical characters like Stephanie Ashenden’s Enriqueta, a streetwalker and working-class girl showing excitement for proletarian revolution, are masterfully played and rendered into even more shapeless, incongruous beings than those penned by Valle-Inclán. Even the hyperbolised caricature of Joss Laverack’s policeman, grotesque and acutely animalised, presents a vivid image of the character’s degradation. The representation of these highly politicised figures, and the turmoil and chaos in 1920s Spanish society resonates with audiences in the present age given the current state of the political panorama, an “esperpento” in itself, giving a whole new meaning to Bohemian Lights

Some minor criticisms can, of course, be made. Perhaps the cast and crew could have conveyed the decadent atmosphere of Madrid in that era more significantly with more intricate set and/or technical approaches. Furthermore, the contrast of coloured fairy lights with the dim lights, representing Max’s nocturnal cavalcades, did not allow the audience to distinguish characters’ facial expressions. However, all of this is trivial when put into context. Light, in Valle-Inclán, is not to clarify, but to deform. And, given the difficulties encountered by lateshows in the ADC, especially having to work around Teahouse’s intricate metrodeck-laden set, Bohemian Lights managed to break free from these constraints and surpassed expectations. 

Bohemian Lights paints a picture of a degraded Spain, with a political élite insensitive to the working classes’ struggles and a society rampant with depravity and corruption. Highly politicised and extremely critical, this is not an easy play to put on, especially in the UK. But somehow I can’t wait to return to my hometown and walk the streets that Max walks, quixotic and trenchant, creative and free, after watching a production that so powerfully translated across these ideals and sensations