Stardust, VAULT Festival

by guest critic Joanna Trainor

There’s political theatre, and then there’s Stardust.

Arguably the most visually stunning piece to come to the VAULT Festival this year, Blackboard Theatre combine movement, out-of-this-world animations and the power of words to expose the dark world of the Columbian cocaine industry.

Often political theatre feels like it’s preaching to the choir, where we all sit around giving ourselves a pat on the back for being so right on, but Stardust is different. Performer Miguel Hernando Torres Umba begins by confessing that for all the sterotyping of Colombians, he has never taken cocaine. Stage manager Will then produces a box instructing Umba to take the cocaine inside, and there’s encouragement from quite a lot of the audience. And that’s why Stardust is something new and important, because people don’t know or aren’t thinking about the impact that cocaine has on the people of Columbia when they’re having fun at a party.

But this isn’t a Nancy Reagan “Just say no” PSA. Bar an overly long rant, confusingly based on the “Say hello to my little friend” scene from Scarface – a film about a Cuban man – Stardust doesn’t feel sanctimonious. We’re given the information in manageable chunks, like hilarious glitzy game show “Plata o Plomo” where an audience member has to decide whether to deal with a problem in the cocaine chain with money or guns. The problems he presents vary from how to get your workforce not to complain about the dreadful conditions to how to clear tens of thousands of hectares of land to plant enough of coca plants. The piece then changes to Umba reading an unbearable letter from a woman whose uncle was tortured and murdered for simply knowing people that worked for the cartel, to him performing a flamenco dance, and so on.

The stars of this show, however, are Diana Garcia’s animations. Beautiful illustrations are projected onto the back screen showing indigenous origin stories. The coca plant coming from stardust, Mother Earth riding on the back of the giant anaconda that became the Amazon river, carrying Umba in a boat down stream – it’s honestly magic. They reappear towards the end of the show, and you want to watch endless stories told through Garcia’s drawings.

Stardust wants us to talk about the brutal reality of cocaine. Blackboard Theatre’s truly extraordinary piece of theatre made me want to talk, to evoke change, to make people see that cocaine is not worth any feel-good factor if it is exploiting millions of people, a millenia-old culture and acres of the Amazon rainforest. Theatre can change the world, and this is one of those shows.

Stardust runs through 25 February.

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