I am no stranger to war history or art history, having studied both in some depth at university. So the idea of attending a play based on Pablo Picasso’s painted representation of one of the most destructive acts in the period between the world wars, the bombing of the small Basque town of Gernika, sounded interesting. A play by Erika Luckert, Guernica attempts to bring life to Picasso’s grotesque cubist forms, bringing us the stories of five very different people as told to the mysteriously shirtless and watchful Candlebearer.
Here’s a quick history lesson for those unfamiliar: A war fought between democracy and fascism, Christianity and communism, the elected Spanish republic and General Franco’s Nationalist rebels, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 became the bloody precursor to the Second World War. By far one of the most important moments in this war was the bombing of the small Basque town of Gernika on April 26, 1937.
To this day, Gernika is the physical manifestation of the strife between the Basque and the non- Basque peoples, and the new violence that was emerging in a rapidly transforming world. It was the second experiment with aerial bombardment of the Spanish Civil War. Hugh Thomas, a historian who specializes in the Spanish Civil War estimates that 1654 people were killed and 889 were wounded, out of a population of 7000.
It was immediately clear that there was no military objective in laying waste to the town as factories producing war material and two barracks just outside of Gernika were left completely untouched by bombs. A report from the Times correspondent at Gernika two days later opined that “the object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.” Many Spanish nationalists denied the attack ever occurred well into the 1950s.
The reasons for its bombing have always been unknown. The most controversial argument in Spain is that it was not selected for tactical reasons, but largely because of its significance as a sacred place in Basque culture. Up until 1937, Gernika was representative of democracy and the rights of people for Basque nationalists. Following the bombing, the name became synonymous with ‘genocide’ and ‘repression’, and was used to promote Basque culture and language, and resistance movements. To this end, Gernika was chosen for very specific, non- military reasons.
Arguably the most important painter of the 20th century, Picasso’s Guernica, a commissioned work for the Spanish Republican pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair, elevated Gernika from being primarily a locally and regionally significant place to a nationally and universally recognized symbol of the horror of war.
A giant rectangular mural, it is divided into three triangular panels, each with a different destructive narrative. The right-side depicts three women, one leaning out of a window holding a lantern, one falling out of a house, and one rushing to the aid of the wounded horse in the centre. On the left, a bull looks over a distraught woman holding a child. The most carnage is in the centre triangular panel, which overlaps the other two. A speared horse throws its head up in agony under a violently bright light fixture, collapsing over pieces of a man holding a broken sword by a flower.
Picasso’s representation of light and lack of colour are two of the biggest visual cues shared between the painting the Luckert’s Guernica. All of the characters are dressed in neutral tones, with only spoken cues to the colours they are wearing and seeing.
In one beautiful and poignant monologue, the male character who operates a fruit and vegetable stall (in the case of the men it is never actually clear which character is which) in the weekly market speaks to the joy he gets in arranging all his colourful wares into the layers of the sunrise, from juicy oranges to tangy lemons to the pink interior surprise of a watermelon. The monologue segues into sadness and horror as the character begins to reflect on death, foreshadowing the fate of himself and his shoppers, aptly concluding “I knew when he died because the colour drained away.”
The most beautifully captured symbolism in the play however is Picasso’s use of light to elevate the horror of the bombing. The set includes a large rectangular “canvas” in the background, which some or all of the characters would periodically freeze in front of in grotesque positions to flickering lights and a noise akin to all the air being both sucked and blown out of a space.
It was a way of capturing, for all the senses, the kind of moment Picasso was trying to convey on a flat surface — when the bomb hits and the whole world seems to freeze. The lighting design was the most impressive aspect of the whole play, succeeding in spotlighting the simple beauty of a quiet town and the sheer force of the violence that destroyed it.
All of the various characters represent a different general type of person who may have populated Gernika — a child, a mother, a prostitute, a market stall operator, and a husband/father-to-be. They each share their stories in spurts, some more effectively than others. The prostitute, who I think is called Raquel (played by Joëlle Préfontaine), shares her jaded view of a world populated by abuse and trying fiercely to remain disconnected from it all.
Her dialogue seemed the most awkward and contrived, and I couldn’t tell if that came from the actor or me. Either way, somehow I couldn’t connect with her story and really feel for her because she was too tough and out-of-place, even when it seemed she suddenly did want to remain a part of the world.
I also couldn’t understand The Candlebearer (Ben Stevens), who seemed to be representative of Picasso reliving and reviving all these separate stories. He hovered, the characters spoke to him and shared their stories, but it felt more murderous and creepy than sympathetic and driven to action.
The stand-out role was that of the child in search of the marzipan man, Galena (Alyson Dicey). At first she seemed horribly, annoyingly exuberant on her quest for a treat, but Dicey absolutely gave into the role and played her innocence, impatience and wonder perfectly. It is she who ultimately represents the shared hopes, dreams and futures of all the characters.
While mother Lucia speaks to the names, connections, histories and traditions of the Gernika/Basque people, and the market stall operator aptly eulogizes that “one day your memory will be all that the people have,” it is Galena who most deftly emotes all that was lost on that most fateful day in April 1937. Luckert’s Guernica is certainly worth seeing – bringing such a charged painting to life is no small feat, and the result is a fascinating and chilling reminder of what people are capable of doing to each other.
Image: Guernica by Pablo Picasso.