Although some shows had started yesterday, the Fringe does not officially begin until tomorrow. At C Aquila, where I have come to see Spanner in the Works’ new show “Diablo,” I feel like I have misread various signals and arrived at the party way too early. They are still training the guy who is selling the tickets, and there are only three of us in the audience. Maybe things will have picked up by tomorrow.
Spanner in the Works is an “all-female led” theatre company from Northern Ireland and “Diablo” has been written by its artistic director Patricia Downey. Since this is the first Tychy@ the Fringe review of 2013, I am enjoying being back at the theatre too much to summon up my characteristic petulance. In this rather stupid condition I find “Diablo” to be, in a technical sense, quite shrewd at times; and it has the eye for detail needed in a “contemporary” drama. The actors look good and they know what they are doing.
Yet this play is damned by its politics. “Diablo” is aesthetically successful, but not in the way that it thinks. Its chief virtue is its racism – not the sort of racism from the empty accusations which are thrown about in the media these days like paper pellets, but the rich dark racism of older generations. Ah yes, I have put my finger on it. HP Lovecraft and his “Horror at Red Hook” (1927):
It would not be the first time his sensations had been forced to bide uninterpreted—for was not his very act of plunging into the polyglot abyss of New York’s underworld a freak beyond sensible explanation? What could he tell the prosaic of the antique witcheries and grotesque marvels discernible to sensitive eyes amidst the poison cauldron where all the varied dregs of unwholesome ages mix their venom and perpetuate their obscene terrors?
Like “The Horror at Red Hook,” “Diablo” describes gangs of foreign kidnappers, but anything explicitly supernatural has been dispensed with this time. We meet four hapless characters who have fallen into the hands of the bumptious, diabolical Reuben (Neil Keery): a Spanish drug-dealer, whoremonger, illegal organ seller (seriously!) and general trafficker extraordinaire. As he prances from defiling a kidnapped Ukrainian maiden to selling one of his housemaid’s kidneys on the black market, we could be scarcely more surprised if Reuben stepped out of his boots to reveal a pair of cloven hooves. Yet he is only actually the instrument of faraway “Russians,” who export crime and vice to Northern Ireland via their sinister international network.
This is scary stuff, but you’ll be relieved to learn that it’s also absolute bollocks. As the Guardian reported in 2009, the UK’s biggest ever police investigation into “sex trafficking,” Operation Pentameter Two, arrested hundreds of people and managed to find precisely zero instances of anybody being forced into sex against their will. Campaigns against “human trafficking” bear an increasingly discernible resemblance to the “Satanic Panic” of the early 1990s, in which social workers seized people’s children on the basis of unsubstantiated claims about “ritualised satanic child abuse.” It is unfortunate, in this respect, that Downey has named her play “Diablo,” which means “Devil” in Reuben’s native Spanish.
It is doubly unfortunate that the scenes in which Downey’s characters try to conspire against Reuben, and inevitably fail, have the suspense of a well-told horror story. Downey should abandon her racist daydream about a bestial “foreign” underworld; her apparent belief that Eastern European workers will be much happier if they are deported back “home” to be with their families; and the grossly offensive notion, uttered by her character Alana (Julie Maxwell), that the paramilitaries from Northern Ireland’s murderous civil war look like “pussy cats” when compared to her pantomime traffickers. With all of the scaremongering politics sucked out of it, Diablo might become more innocently devilish.