Strawberry and Chocolate at Brewery Theatre, Bristol, opens to the sound of Silvio Rodriguez’s Ojalá (If Only). On the stage is a clever arrangement of books, religious iconography, a chair and three men. Welcome to 1970s Havana, a place of revolutionary fervour, sugar quota madness and machismo; a dangerous place for a gay man to be.
The revolution has offered David the chance to study at university and his ambition is to be a writer in his beloved Communist Cuba; Diego is an older man, finely attuned to the world outside of the island, a purveyor of beauty. He is homosexual; the young David is not. After a chance encounter at Coppelia ice creamery, David is lured back to Diego’s apartment and, though uncomfortable there, he returns, convinced by fellow communist youth activist, Miguel, to spy on a man who is an apparent traitor of the revolution.
And so it seems … traitor he must be. In an anti-Religion State, Diego is Catholic. He drinks contraband whisky, reads banned books from all over the globe, courts foreign diplomats. But most outragously of all, he wants sex with men. He gives David a key to his home and the boy is smitten by Diego’s hidden, flamboyant world in a country of uniform and uniformity.
I watched the 1993 film Fresa y Chocolate in Santiago de Cuba during the mid-90s, where I hung around with mostly Cuban university friends, half of whom were gay. Although prosecution of homosexual acts had become decriminalised in Cuba in 1979, it seemed to me that the release of this film had only very recently allowed the gay community to breath a collective sigh of relief and host One Big Coming Out Party. In my circle of friends, gayness was to be celebrated. That this film was jointly Cuban made and uncensored in a Special Period ‘Socialist Revolutionary’ Cuba, where life had taken a dramatic, though temporary, downturn since the fall of the Soviet Union, is important. It appeared to be an apology for those earlier years of persecution of homosexuals, many of whom had been sent to correction camp and sentenced to forced labour on the sugar plantations. It was a cry of ‘we now welcome difference; let’s band together to make this maldito thing work!’
Strawberry and Chocolate is a love story that tries to make sense of that younger revolution. It is a discussion about what the new Cuban Man should be. You can feel the blossoming friendship between Craig Fuller (Diego) and Matt Jessup (David), who, at first seem to be different and, as the story progresses, less so. Jessup plays the slightly scared, then eager, boy well. Fuller is wholly believable as the sort of man you’d want in your life: a man of passion and intelligence. And Ryan McKen as the macho Miguel is dislikable (which he is supposed to be) but his actions are also understandable in a country rife with anti-gay, anti-religious and anti-capitalist propaganda. A good job by all and thank you for not trying to adopt Cuban accents; the ‘street’ versus ‘posh’ speak did the talking.
If I could change one thing, it would be a slight injection of wit. This is achieved in the film by a camper Diego and, though Fuller plays him beautifully, the extra puff of the lips and wink of an eye might complete his character.
I adored the set design and all credit to Max Johns for it. The ramp of books served as focal point to Diego’s ornamental apartment, whilst symbolising El Malecón, the esplanade and seawall, the beginning of the divide between Cuba and her imperialist enemy, 90 miles across the Straits of Florida. I understood every last reference in the play – from the Virgin de la Caridad and her sunflowers to the madly bustling Coppelia. I expected to feel a strong twang of longing for that country I once lived in but, no, that didn’t really happen, not while I was at the Brewery Theatre. Now, however, the morning after, I have an urge to watch that film again and to dig out some Cuban poetry, maybe cook up some Moros y Cristianos.
Almost the entire cast and creative team involved in Strawberry and Chocolate is a product of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. And, so, they do it again; this city really does have a remarkable amount of talent!
Strawberry and Chocolate is on at Brewery Theatre until Saturday 13th September
– Review by Becky Condron