Manuelita: love in revolutionary times – Manuelita by Tamsin Clarke at the Rosemary Branch Theatre

I love Manchester but I started to get a bit bored after finishing my exams, and was thinking about going away for a couple of days. As I wandered on the internet, I came across an article on Sounds and Colours that gave me the perfect excuse to go to London for the weekend.

The article was advertising Manuelita, a play about the woman who fought for the independence of the South American colonies with General Simón Bolívar. It was described as a funny and energetic feminist play, depicting the life of Manuela Sáenz, who was expunged from history books despite her key role in the life of Bolívar and the fight for independence. Anglo-Venezuelan actress Tamsin Clarke‘s creation and interpretation of this piece was accompanied by Colombian guitar player Camilo Menjura. The Rosemary Branch Pub in Islington was hosting the play in its tiny and charmingly shabby theatre, contributing to the confidential and intimate tone of the show.

After watching the play, I came up with the idea of writing several posts about prominent Latin American women, from historical figures to artists. This is thus the first of a series titled The Feminine Face of Latin America/America Latina con Cara de Mujer, which I will write both in English and Spanish, although this one will only be in EnglishNext post will be about La Malinche, who played a crucial role in the conquest of Mexico and whose character is still present in Mexican and Chicano symbolism.

Manuela Sáenz was a controversial character, the target of many gossips and slander. First, she was a bastarda, the illegitimate child of a Spanish nobleman and an Ecuadorian criolla. She was also a woman, and was expected to become a submissive wife, something she was certainly not. When she found out that her pathetic (in her own words!) English husband had been cheating on her, she left him, although divorce was very much frowned upon in early 19th century Ecuadorian society. She was accused of being rude, manipulative, subversive, a lesbian, and a prostitute. The most outrageous stories were told about her by the sly ladies of the high society of Quito. But as she cheerfully asks the audience: after all, who wants to hear about the madona when you can hear about the whore?

When Simón Bolívar visited her town in 1822, she made sure he noticed her. They then started a relationship which lasted until his death in 1830. As a half-criollan, Manuelita was very much in favour of the liberation of the colonies from Spanish rule despite her father being a Spanish hidalgo. In this again, she was subversive. Meeting Bolivar gave her the opportunity to actively participate in the revolution that was taking place at the time. However, being Bolívar’s lover, or rather having Bolívar as a lover, was not always easy. As a member of the revolutionary army, she was the only woman in a male battalion, and Bolívar was often away. Their relationship was turbulent yet passionate, punctuated by bouts of jealousy. It was love in revolutionary times, and Manuelita demonstrated her love for the libertador and his ideals when she saved him from being assassinated by enemies. They were life companions, lovers, and comrades in arms. Unfortunately, when he died, she was forgotten. She finished her life poor and alone, without getting any of the glory Bolívar received as the liberator of the Americas.

Tamsin Clarke, however, brings her back to life, in a brilliant act. As she jumps around the stage, dances, sings, and laughs, Manuelita comes alive. The play was not only a colourful one-woman show, it was also a dialogue with the music and the audience. She does not hesitate in taking a man to the stage to play her English husband, or sitting on a spectator’s lap. She plays Manuelita, but sometimes also embodies Bolívar, the gossiping ladies, or the assassins. She also closely interacts with Camilo Menjura, who brilliantly plays the guitar and sings along with her, and even comforts her when she finds out Bolívar has died. The only criticism I have was that the play was rather short – only an hour, and it left me begging for more. However, it has encouraged me to find more about Manuela Saenz, something Tamsin Clarke perhaps intended by keeping the play rather short.

Watch the trailer hereManuelita will be on tour in the UK in 2015/2016, don’t miss it!

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