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Review: Manuelita, at Arcola Theatre

18 July, 2019 — By Leo Garib

Tamsin Hurtado Clarke

NORTH London echoed to Latin American voices this week with the opening of a giant South American theatre festival.

The CASA Festival, which brings over some of the continent’s best performers for a fortnight of plays, dance and cinema, opened at the Arcola theatre in Dalston on Tuesday.

Launched 12 years ago in a crypt under a church in Farringdon, CASA is now one of the world’s largest Latin theatre events and cultural highlight in London.

This year’s kicked off with a barnstorming one-woman show about one of the most fascinating yet little-known figures in Latin American history, Manuelita Sáenz.

Lifelong lover of Simon Bolivar, the iconic general who drove the Europeans from swathes of the continent, Sáenz was a military genius and guiding hand in the newly liberated republic. But she has been shabbily treated by history.

Mostly written out of history books, when she does appear it is as a harlot or femme fatale. She hardly figured in the Netflix biopic Simon Bolivar.

Yet she was a hell of a woman and London-born, Venezuelan actress Tamsin Hurtado Clarke brings her brilliantly back to life. From Sáenz’s scandalous upbringing as a love child, through her tempestuous teens, divorce, affair with Bolivar, her unstoppable rise through the ranks and finally her tragic end, the play sparkles.

Clarke is mesmerising, playing several parts with humour, pathos and seemingly boundless energy. Live music is provided by skilled Columbian guitarist Santiago Jara.

The play, which began as a 15-minute sketch that won an X Factor-style contest at CASA six years ago, has already appeared at Edinburgh and toured Latin America.

Clarke hatched the idea one morning after stumbling across a British newspaper story that described Sáenz as the “harlot of the Americas”. Intrigued and incensed, she went back to Latin America to uncover truth.

“Women were an enormous part in the struggle and we need to learn from them,” she told me after her first CASA success with the play. “Manuela had two great loves – Bolivar and the revolution. She should be an inspiration.”

Their performances this week brought a thunderous standing ovation and left the couple next to me in tears.

The festival continues until July 27 at the Arcola theatre, Dalston, the Rich Mix, Shoreditch, and Rio cinema, Dalston.

CASA Festival, July 16-27 www.casafestival.org.uk 020 7503 1646


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