There is a great deal of ambition in the latest show from the superlative flamenco guitarist, composer and producer Paco Peña. Patrias (meaning “homelands”) is a reflection on the devastation of the Spanish Civil War, which started 80 years ago this month – the title alluding to the warring sides’ very different conceptions of how their country should be.
It is also a tribute to one of the conflict’s early victims, Federico García Lorca, who was murdered by Nationalist militia in August 1936. Best known as a poet and playwright, García Lorca, from Granada in Andalusia, was also an accomplished musician who felt a great affinity for folk and gypsy culture and flamenco, particularly the soul-scorching cante jondo style of singing; something that suffused much of his work.
An opening pair of solo dances, a farruca by Angel Muñoz and a rondeña by Mayte Bajo, sets a gracefully sombre mood, with their quiet, concentrated, expressive movement and the dancers’ gentle communing with Peña as he accompanies them on guitar. However, once we’re into the show proper, things start to unravel.
The ten performers are on stage most of the time together, dressed in colours of earth and stone that seem to add a sepia tint to the production. Folk songs that García Lorca recovered and performed, examples of his own poetry, and tributes from notable friends and contemporaries form part of the soundscape, their words recited by the actor Jorge de Juan (who sometimes ends up competing with a recorded English translation) and fitfully projected on to the backcloth. There are snatches of contemporary recordings and footage from a 1963 French documentary, bleached to the point that the fascist rallies and scenes of warfare become highly impressionistic. It feels as though Peña wants the show to be at once highly specific and a comment on conflict in general. In fact, what we get is somewhat clamorous and confusing.
Among all this there’s the flamenco. Peña and his fellow musicians are superb and the anguished, melismatic cascades of song (particularly striking when delivered by Gema Jiménez) certainly suit the solemn subject matter; the flamenco dancing less so. As random words and phrases appear on the back wall – Turmoil, Noise, Upheaval, Now the firing begins – we see choreographed flamenco duets performed by a very synchronised Muñoz and Bajo that seem blissfully disconnected from their context. One solo by Muñoz , where he bends his precise hammering steps into an overtly martial style, is effective, but the subsequent sequence in which a group of performers are supposed to represent beleaguered Republican fighters just has them milling about uncertainly. The lack of narrative drive becomes painfully clear after the death of Lorca has been dealt with and the piece stutters limply to its end.
The civil war is a highly emotional subject for any Spaniard and Peña has a lot he wants to convey. The sincerity of the endeavour is moving. Sadly, though, there are too many threads running through Patrias, and they end up in a tangle from which it’s hard to extricate anything.