Reviewer's rating

Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) has a new director, Tarek Iskander, and he has launched a season called Going Global. If Autoreverse is a trailblazer for this season, we are in for some fascinating and challenging theatre. In telling parallel stories of a family – and of a nation – facing the horrors of the 1976 military coup in Argentina, Florencia Cordeu offers us a work that is by turns thought-provoking, heart-warming, and tragic. And as countries around the globe have to face up again to the threat of fascism, she offers us a timely reminder of how any family can get drawn into the web of the paranoid police state.

The story is based on the discovery by Cordeu of a bag of old audio-cassette tapes containing “letters” between her immediate family in exile in Chile and members of the extended family who stayed on in Argentina. These tapes have been woven into a soundtrack that is the basis for most of what we see on stage – but Cordeu herself sometimes speaks to the tapes, or fills in gaps and explains who the speakers are, or addresses us directly. We hear about the lives of those for whom home is a dream never to be revisited, and of the tragedy that overtakes one of the family groups that stays and resists. There is a great deal of humour both in the tapes themselves and in the way Cordeu interacts with them, but there is a deep sense of melancholy that underlies the stories. And in describing the processes of story-making and story-telling – and we get a crash course in audio-cassette technology – we get some fascinating reflections on what home means to people who choose, or are forced, to travel far from their roots.

The performing space at BAC is set out with a group of ancient cassette decks and with other objects – a bonsai tree, a film projector, some microphones, a suitcase. Cordeu is dressed in a white boiler suit and occasionally puts on gloves and glasses when handling some of the old cassettes. At first we think that the cassette tapes are the source of all the sound other than Cordeu’s voice but it gradually becomes clear that there is a pre-recorded sound track which allows for lots of clever variations of voice and context. By the time we reach the heart of the story Cordeu’s thoughts about storytelling and how technology affects the way we relate to each other has become an integral part of the drama. The way that trivial domestic details frame the horrors of the murderous police state and of the fate of “the disappeared” works to heighten the emotional impact. And then, just when we think we know where we are in the trajectory of the story, a quick change of costume that links with some childhood memories throws us off into another remembered world. Near the end Cordeu even argues with herself – or rather with some ideas spoken by her onto a tape recorded a few months earlier. It is a disconcerting set of scenes that very cleverly bring us constantly up against assumptions we have made based on earlier moments.

All this could seem very contrived but the warm and approachable persona of Cordeu makes sure that this is not the impression that comes across. It is a gripping piece of story-telling, weaving together a history of a country riven by political savagery, of a family which, though separated, finds ways of maintaining the bonds of love and kinship, and an artist trying to make some sense of her family story and her own place in the world. A very promising start to Going Global.