Agreste (Drylands)

Newton Moreno, translated by Mark O'Thomas
Dende Collective
Lyric Hammersmith Studio
(2007)

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Theatre companies who specialise in a single genre tend to go one of two ways. They either get so good at it that other companies straying into their territory can only suffer by comparison (Trestle, Shared Experience), or they become so desperate to find the next vehicle for their message that they overlook - or willingly trade in - everything else in the quest. The Dende Collective's production of Newton Moreno's Agreste (Drylands) is a bad case of the latter.

The play, set in the arid Agreste region of Brazil, tells the story of a young woman who meets, falls in love and shares 22 years of her life with her "husband", who is discovered after his death to have been a woman and leaves his widow to come to terms with the "sin" of their life together and the villagers' disgust and revulsion.

The story clealy has potential, but its execution lacks tension, empathy or credible emotion of any sort. Much of Moreno's play, and/or Mark O'Thomas' translation, relies on sentences broken and shared among the cast, repeated words and phrases and the kind of simplistic language the developed world is apt to attribute to further flung reaches of the globe.

The overall impression is presumably supposed to be of emotionally-charged poetry, and perhaps, notwithstanding its flaws, this might have been achieved in the hands of a director and cast who believed in it. The four-strong cast look unconvinced and unconvincing and the moments in which they are fully immersed in the play are few and far between. The production tries, rather tediously and pretentiously at times, to be all things to all people and fails on most counts. Half-hearted mask work, sporadic, imperfect moments of physical theatre, and a couple of crass episodes of audience-participation do little to distract from the lack of conviction at the heart of the production.

Play, direction and acting aside, Gui Tavares' and Dave Yowell's musical direction and performance capture what one imagines was the essence of the tale beautifully, and Michael Fowkes' set and costume design is some of the best, movingly minimal and most coherent I have seen. Both music and set capture perfectly the simple poetry of a simple narrative.

Rightly or wrongly, for an audience, theatre is about the production they are watching that evening, not the production company's mission statement. Bringing the work of emerging Brazilian playwrights to the English stage is undoubtedly a worthwhile project, but productions like this one will do little to further the cause. Agreste fails to convince on almost every level - one to miss without a doubt.

Until 26 May 2007

Reviewer: Louise Hill