Machu Picchu isn’t the only thing in ruins by the end of Cuzco, an intense two-hander about the fiery death of a relationship by Spanish playwright Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez. In an attempt to salvage their relationship, He and She have travelled to Peru – but their dream holiday quickly turns sour. As the play begins, He wants to go out with another Spanish couple they’ve befriended. She is not so keen, claiming altitude sickness and choosing to stay behind. When She does venture out of the hotel, it’s to immerse herself in the local culture (arguably a little too enthusiastically), while He is seduced by the charms of his new friends and pays little attention to his surroundings.
Nor does the audience get to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Inca trail, except at second hand. Far from rebuilding their relationship, the couple seem to spend most of the time apart; the play is set in a series of soulless hotel rooms – perfectly captured by Stephanie Williams’ simple set – in which they each take it in turns to describe what they’ve experienced to the other in great detail. It’s a parting of the ways in every possible sense, and although there are a few surprises in store before the end, the story ultimately plays out with crushing inevitability. Perhaps because we don’t get to see more than a snatched moment or two of the couple seeming happy together, we can never imagine any other outcome than what eventually happens.
The premise of the play is a good one, and the direction by Kate O’Connor and performances from Dilek Rose and Gareth Jones are all excellent. Where the play stumbles a little is in transmitting the intense passions between the characters to the audience. Neither He nor She is ever particularly likeable – though certainly they both have moments where we lean more to one side or the other – and there’s not enough variety in their interactions; because all they do from the very first scene is argue, it’s difficult for us to feel invested in their relationship, or to care very much when the end finally comes. In fact there are several moments where you’re left wondering why they even felt the relationship was worth coming all this way to save in the first place.
What is interesting about Cuzco, however, is that while in some respects it’s a very down-to-earth, everyday tale, at the same time the play has an increasingly otherworldly feel. Part of this lies in the story itself, which returns throughout to the fascination of both characters – She in particular – with Incan mythology and symbolism, but above all it’s in the way the play is written. William Gregory has translated Sánchez Rodríguez’s evocative language beautifully into English without losing any of its distinctive Spanish feel. And if that means sacrificing a little bit of realism – this couple argue far more eloquently than any I’ve ever met – it’s worth it for the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the poetry.
Despite some incredibly emotional scenes, Cuzco on the whole feels aimed more at the head than the heart, and as such it may not appeal to everyone. The play does, however, ask some interesting and at times uncomfortably probing questions about why and how people choose to travel, and the impact that experience can have on both the traveller and the cultures they set out to explore. Not the most emotionally engaging play, perhaps, but beautifully written – and it certainly leaves you with plenty to think about.
Cuzco is at Theatre503 until 16th February.