Review: The Referendum (Luminato Festival)

Antonio Skármeta’s The Referendum tells the story of Chile’s democracy at Toronto’s Luminato Festival

When I left the bright Queen’s Quay and Harbourfront area, bustling with families and street performers, I feared I was leaving the summer joy behind when I entered the Fleck Dance Theater for Antonio Skármeta’s The Referendum, one of Luminato’s 7 Monologues series.

Thankfully the story he told about Chile and the political moment that changed that nation’s history in 1988 left me with a pensive, yet powerful optimism.

For an hour, Antonio Skármeta read a monologue version of his unpublished play El Plebiscito (translated to The Referendum in English) to the gathered audience. Following the journey of Rene, an ad man blacklisted by General Pinochet’s regime, the play tells the story of the opposition or “Vote No” campaign held before the 1988 referendum.

Against all odds, the 15-minute television broadcasts, theme song, and symbol of the rainbow united the country and the “No” campaign won. Two years late, Pinochet left office to make way for a democratic government.

I wanted to see this show because I had never heard of this political moment in Chile’s history, or if I had, it got lost in the mess of high school Spanish classes. What I didn’t expect to learn about was an ad man known for campaigns for soft drinks created a campaign to unite 16 different political parties and an oppressed nation to vote for democracy.

Immediately after the show, I wanted to look up more details about Pinochet’s rule, the historical images and television broadcasts from the campaign, and what this has meant for Chile’s political climate today. Skármeta’s performance whet my appetite for more details.

As a staged reading, Skármeta’s monologue succeeded to reel me into this true story and built to an emotional high with the presentation of ten minutes of real footage from the “No” campaign. He brought flavors of this history to life through accompaniment from Toronto-based band Cassava Trio, a rainbow-painted Chilean dancer, and the cast of characters he crafted through his own rich Chilean accent.

If considered as a performance, I must admit The Referendum felt unbalanced. I loved the traditional Chilean music, but the band members impatiently sitting on stage distracted from Skármeta’s compelling narration. I would have loved to see them and their music more fully integrated.

Overall, The Referendum reminded me what international festivals like Luminato can bring to Toronto. They can highlight perspectives, histories, and artists not previously included on Canadian or North American stages.

The Referendum, as it was based on a true story, did not paint a falsely hopeful view on how groups and individuals can stand up for democracy and freedom. Rene’s journey, from blacklisted, out-of-work ad man to struggling underdog to threatened yet technically free and successful campaign supervisor, will stay with me as I read and watch today’s news.

Unfortunately Luminato’s 7 Monologues series concluded on Sunday June 21st but for another version of Skármeta’s play, see the Academy-Award nominated film No, adapted to film by Pedro Peirano.