"Two cousins infected with malaria are seated on the trunk of a tree, warming themselves under the sun and waiting for death." No parodist could invent a more unappetising opening line for the synopsis of an international theatre piece than that printed in the programme to Vau Da Sarapalha. How much more of a surprise, then, when north-eastern Brazilian company Grupo Poillin's show in The Pit's BITE strand turns out to be thoroughly magical.
João Guimarães Rosa's short story centres on one cousin's urge to confess finally his love for the other's wife (who has long since eloped with someone else altogether), and the attempts of an old woman living nearby to prevent this. Adaptor/director Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos at first threatens a kind of Brazilian Beckett affair: several minutes elapse before the first spoken line onstage, the banal "Look, there's a mosquito in my ear, cousin," and the scene (including speech) is played in ludicrously slow motion, then replayed in its entirety a little faster, and finally at gabbling speed, until the spell is broken when the old woman breaks a pot.
The images on stage, both visual and aural, are breathtaking. Soia Lira as the old woman Ceição is a tiny figure bustling about to distract the cousins, jabbering almost non-stop in an impenetrable glossolalia. She pushes an apparently fully functioning, bellows-driven domestic furnace across the stage, blowing out clouds of wood sparks, and seems to divine the future in the flames of a bowlful of oil. In this candomblé-like atmosphere, she chatters with her familiar demon, who only occasionally pops up from behind since most of the time performer Escurinho is executing a dazzlingly inventive percussive soundtrack. So captivated do we become that even the clicking of stage lights as they cool down seems an intentional part of the soundscape.
The figure discovered on stage before the show proper begins, clad only in dirty shorts, lying shivering in the foetal position, turns out to be not one of the malarial cousins but their dog, a wonderfully observed impersonation of such an animal in oppressive heat. The forest which has encroached on the almost entirely deserted village is represented, without comment, by a clump of dozens of inch-high, Dayglo pot plants at the front of the stage.
The Poillin company have been performing this piece for over a decade now, but there is no sense whatever of routine or jadedness to their work. The final image of the cousins' world destroyed is at once gloriously simple and an impressive coup; without giving too much away, I shall simply say that I have never seen such a thing before in an indoor venue. The whole event lasts only 50 minutes, but like the best short stories, it contains a density and richness far beyond its physical boundaries.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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