As soon as we are ushered in, the audience is launched into a continuously updating exchange of texts between a concerned parent and her defensive daughter over the course the latter’s trip to the Spanish party island of Ibiza. As the conversation progresses it becomes clear that the daughter’s dream holiday of freedom and drunken fun is quickly descending into a nightmare of dependency and exploitation. Off the back of the recent early release of half the “Peru Two” duo from prison, following the pair’s incarceration on drug smuggling charges, Mule attempts to bring a dramatic re-imagining of the murky morality surrounding the case to the Edinburgh stage.
The dialogue of messages, projected onto a small screen (which was then re-used at various intervals in, and to complement, the action) was an innovative theatrical device. However, it was not always easy to see clearly, given the venue’s small size and subsequent restrictions – particularly the level seating. If a larger stage had been used, this could have been improved by raising the screen. On the other hand, one would then lose the intimacy of the space – made all the more so by the cast of only two.
Such as it was this supremely talented duo were able to fill the stage with a staggeringly diverse cast of characters. They demonstrated incredibly versatile acting; slipping in and out of roles, accents and not only languages of the tongue (Spanish was used on various occasions) but also languages of the body. Kiwi actress Edith Poor was particularly adept at inhabiting the masculine swagger of male arrogance in the coercive pimp/boyfriend character.
I do not use the “pimp/boyfriend” label out of lazy indecision on how to define this particular character’s role in the story. The perfectly captured self-righteous journalist who comes to interview the girls is keen to nail down the exact nature of the relationship, but Órlaith remains reticent. One of the key aspects of the piece is the uncomfortable moral ambiguity the case presents. It is so easy to condemn the actions of these girls; it is much harder to try and understand. In our reluctance to make a conscious attempt in the latter, we risk at best polarisation and an over-simplification of the complex situation and at worst slipping into what amounts to abuse.
As we are invited to glance over at the projections of various social media comments made about this fictitious re-imagining of the “Peru Two” it reminds me of a comic scene in the hit Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof (inappropriate/appropriate as it may be). Two crowds of destitute Russian Jewish villagers shout angrily about the correct classification of a certain equine controversy, ultimately coming to no agreement and yet more anger. No one stops to examine the beast and gain an informed scientific answer, they make a gut pre-judgement and doggedly stand their guns regardless of the facts.
Another central concern of the play is the idea of the so-called “feminisation” of drug trafficking, and female exploitation in a broader sense. On many occasions the women’s financial dire straits are used to illicit sexual favours. An important aspect of the portrayal of women’s mistreatment is that it could be exampled in each of the play’s three locations. In Ibiza, the women are degraded by their employer; attention is drawn to the unsanitary conditions of the Peruvian prison, and back home in Ireland the online trolling explicitly condoning the rape of these “whores” forces the Irish girl’s mother to completely erase her social media presence (ironically so crucial to obtaining the whereabouts of her daughter in the first place).
In the light of these appalling and dehumanising comments, it was great to see some fundamentally human aspects of the girls’ ordeal during the piece’s lighter moments – particularly Órlaith’s Irish dancing in prison and subsequent talent show. However, alongside these times where as an audience member one feels that they are laughing with the girls, there are troubling moments when the girls appear to be the butt of the joke. For example, in the case of their linguistic (their inability to speak/understand any Spanish) and geographical ignorance (Órlaith’s sister’s “where the fuck even is Peru?”) It is in such glimpses we are inclined to view the girls’ as extremely naive, perhaps even stupid, which serves as an obstacle to the narrative of genuine exploitation.
Image: courtesy of production