Review: Soulpepper’s audio drama The Walls is harrowing political theatre

Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro's prescient 1963 play about a brutal interrogation works powerfully in audio format

THE WALLS by Griselda Gambaro, translated by Marguerite Feitlowitz (Soulpepper). Presented as part of Soulpepper’s Around The World In 80 Plays series. Available to stream until June 30. Rating: NNNN


In just two weeks, Soulpepper’s Around The World In 80 Plays series has become essential for theatre lovers. At a time when both live, in-person theatre and non-essential travel have been put on hold, it offers a creative solution. Imagine a mini international theatre festival for the ears, intellect and soul. 

Last week, the company premiered an excellent audio version of Canadian Margo Kane’s 1990 monodrama Moonlodge. This week, the series travels to Argentina with a production of Griselda Gambaro’s 1963 play The Walls. It, too, works effectively in audio, where what we imagine happening is almost more horrific than what could be replicated on a physical stage. 

The 90-minute play begins with an unnamed character known as Young Man (voiced by Augusto Bitter) being led into a room by an Usher (Diego Matamoros) after being picked up at night. The man hears a scream, and the usher glosses over the situation. It’s not a prison, is it? he asks rhetorically. In fact, the room is spacious, with a big curtained window, even though, when the curtains are parted, it opens up onto a wall.

Later, the man is interviewed by someone named the Functionary (Carlos González-Vio), who tries, in his own roundabout way, to discover information about the Young Man – he thinks he might be someone else and not telling them. 

Gradually, the Usher and the Functionary wear down the Young Man until he’s lost any sense of self. 

What’s shocking about this play is its prescience. Gambaro wrote it more than a decade before tens of thousands of Argentines were “disappeared” during the military dictatorship’s Dirty War in the 70s and early 80s.

But of course brutal dictatorships and passive adherence to the rules have been around for centuries. And Gambaro – aided by translator Marguerite Feitlowitz – evokes this nightmare with vivid details: doors that don’t open, items that disappear, walls that seem to be closing in. Meanwhile, in Thomas Ryder Payne’s chilling sound design, we hear the clanking and creaking of doors, as well as the occasional muffled screams of others in another part of the house.

Under Beatriz Pizano’s direction, the three actors are superb. You can hear Bitter’s character gradually crumple as he changes from concerned citizen to confused, exhausted prisoner; González-Vio is excellent at communicating the art-loving Functionary’s fake concern, even as he’s ready to plunge in a metaphorical dagger; and Matamoros’s wily Usher is the most fascinating character of all, a cynical seen-it-all type who relies on bravado, sadism and misdirection to get what he needs.

The Soulpepper site provides information about nine other plays from Argentina to help you appreciate this leg of their global tour. And the company offers political and artistic context for The Walls through interviews, food recommendations and an episode from CBC Ideas.

@glennsumi

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