Writer: Senel Paz
Director: Nancy Medina
Reviewer: Claire Hayes
If we are all equal does this mean we all have to be the same? During the Cuban Revolution depicted in Strawberry and Chocolate, you may not need family wealth and entitlement to enjoy new freedoms like a university education, but in 1979 it’s totally unacceptable to be gay.
Cultured and worldly, Diego (Craig Fuller) approaches David (Matt Jessup) in a Havana ice-cream shop and lures him to his apartment. But David, a student and writer who also happens to be a heterosexual, card-carrying Communist, is quick to repel Diego’s advances. It’s only when his fellow revolutionary Miguel (Ryan McKen) suggests to David that he should return and incriminate Diego that the two forge an unlikely friendship, wrapped up in forbidden literature, whiskey and mournful arias from Maria Callas.
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduate Nancy Medina, awarded the Emerging Director Prize for 2014, demonstrates a lively and assured touch in her winning production. She is ably supported by an intriguingly detailed set design by Max Johns; a wall of books dotted with religious iconography, effectively dividing the space. This enables the clashing ideals to be brought into sharp focus, with Diego immured in his apartment and Miguel stalking the periphery for most of the play. David, gradually softening under Diego’s cultural influence, is the “New Man” who seeks to bridge the two worlds. He supports the revolution and Cuba’s right as a country to forge its own way, free from undue foreign influence, while beginning to reason that all the island’s citizens should also be able to enjoy the same privileges.
If the attraction between Diego and David is sometimes uncertain, this is more to do with leaps made in the writing, rather than the energetic and hard-hitting performances of the cast from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Fuller’s Diego, conniving and predatory at first, convincingly makes the transition into a character deserving of our sympathy. Jessup is a slightly geeky, intellectual David, and although it might be difficult to imagine Diego picking him out in a crowd, he portrays the gradual development of a sheltered young man’s thinking with great clarity. McKen is bullying and dogmatic, frighteningly forceful in his blinkered belief in a revolution that cannot accommodate those who don’t fit in.
This UK premiere of Senel Paz’s adaptation of his own short story, first staged in New York City and translated here by Roy Arias, is a very promising debut for Medina and her young cast. It raises interesting, although not necessarily new, questions of ideology and tolerance and eventually comes full circle to deliver the revolution’s answer, reinforcing the greatest inequality of all.
Runs until 13th September 2014 | Photo by Max Johns