This evening could have been sub-titled Franco and Fernando, since both held sway in each of the works that constituted this often frenzied and always imaginative triple bill. The impact of the Generalissimo’s dictatorship featured as a kind of before, during and after leitmotif. The opening work, Passionaria, is set at the beginning of Franco’s regime, in 1939; the narrative of the concluding work, O Maria, takes place in the 1950s; and the “ham” in this creative sandwich – Young Man – happens amidst the post-Franco euphoria of the late 1970s.

Marivi Da Silva and Antonette Dayritt in <i>O maria</i> © Emma Kauldhar
Marivi Da Silva and Antonette Dayritt in O maria
© Emma Kauldhar

As for Fernando; well, he IS the Ham. To be precise, he is a whole shoulder and leg – complete with trotter – of jamón ibérico (or perhaps he’s serrano), fixed to a jamonera (the wooden stand and clamp used for holding the ham); and he has been performing as part of the title role in this mixed programme for the past five years. Despite the fact that many Spanish hams take up to two years to be cured, I have a strong suspicion that poor old Fernando may no longer be edible.

I have previous experience of Ham and Passion, having seen both some elements singly and the whole programme in other theatres and – not for the first time – it is worth noting that the eerie, dilapidated Victorian splendour of the world’s oldest surviving grand music hall adds something special to what was already a bawdy, ebullient spectacle. The stage was set on two levels, an innovation on previous viewings, and this extra platform proved valuable in each work.

Passionaria is a solo (if you discount Fernando’s brief appearance) that concerns Anna La Passionaria, a drag queen in downtown Barcelona (described as a ‘Venus born out of a sewer in Seville’) who is most likely confronting the impending demise of both “her” act – and perhaps, also “her” life – as Franco’s Falangism takes control. There was not much future for drag queens in fascist Spain, much less if they happened to be Catalan. 

Fabio Dolce in <i>Passionata</i> © Maria Falconer
Fabio Dolce in Passionata
© Maria Falconer

This was Phil Sanger’s role and his unsettling mix of gaunt, grotesque, vain elegance seemed hard to be imagined in someone else’s interpretation. But, credit to Fabio Dolce who brought his own piercing, aching nobility to the mystery of La Passionaria. We seemed like voyeurs in the artiste’s dressing room; experiencing the painful recreation of her act, culminating in a dress that presented a shimmering sea of green sparkle; and then a slow psychological disintegration in the face of imagined atrocities to come; fondling “her” body with the blade of a knife, before driving it into Fernando’s long-dead flesh.

Carlos Pons Guerra’s work dispenses with atypical gender assumptions. Young Man has two male figures played by women. Marivi Da Silva reprises the role of death (La Mort) for which she was nominated for two categories in the 2016 National Dance Awards. Antonette Dayrit was the second new cast member (replacing Azzurra Ardovini) and she, too, made a strong impression as the sexually-conflicted Young Man of the title, alone (except for Fernando) in his small apartment; obsessively fantasising about a homosexual liaison with Da Silva’s stranger. The interaction of the pair in Pons Guerra’s fast-moving, highly physical partnering was suitably agile. The ham and the passion meet head on; penile sticks of chorizo are ripped apart in the performers’ teeth and the phallic potential of Fernando’s erect leg is not left to the imagination.

The passion (and the ham) spilled over into the final work; as, indeed did the gender crossovers. Dolce returns as a vision of the Virgin Mary, dressed as a nun; and Dayrit is the sexually-abused, dominated husband of Da Silva’s sado-masochistic wife. Scratch the veneer of suffocating Catholicism behind the doors of this Andalusian household and a perverse depravity is not far from the surface. The speed and strength required by the three performers on this double-decker stage is extraordinary and they matched the challenges set for them by Pons Guerra with quicksilver gusto and charisma.

Marivi da Silva and Antonette Dayritt in <i>Young Man</i> © Maria Falconer
Marivi da Silva and Antonette Dayritt in Young Man
© Maria Falconer

Pons Guerra is a director unafraid of silence; interposing several such mute episodes between his evocative selection of vintage Spanish music. A cascade of creative ideas feed into his sophisticated mix of dance theatre and performance art. How else could one explain that his father’s present of a ham, in 2012, should have turned into the catalyst for – and a consistent component of - three such compelling works Throughout Ham and Passion, the coalescence of narrative, character, choreography, performance, music, lighting and design is of the highest order; the sum of these parts adding value to the whole. I can’t wait to see what is up next: although, it’s probably time for poor Fernando to be laid to
rest.