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The Book of Disquiet

Translated and adapted by Mark O'Thomas from Fernando Pessoa's novel Livro do Desassossego
Blue Elephant Theatre
(2011)

The Book of Disquiet production photo

Fernando Pessoa is regarded as the greatest Portuguese poet of modern times. The greater part of his work however was not authored by him but by manufactured personae - a collection of creations more complex and developed than mere pseudonyms, each emerging from within Pessoa with its own intellectual framework and voice.

The authorship of The Book of Disquiet is attributed to one such of these heteronyms as Pessoa termed them - a telling choice of expression, more commonly employed for words that are spelt the same but take on different meanings according to their pronunciation - but this is certainly too limiting an interpretation.

That this text was written over many years implies that many heteronyms contributed to it and that it was abandoned, in pieces, to be found in a trunk in Pessoa's apartment after his death, even suggests that it may never have been intended for publication.

This adaptation by Mark O'Thomas effectively captures the fragmentary nature of the novel being a collection of short scenes without narrative progression across the whole. Rendered in a promenade performance inside a claustrophobically dark and gloomy Kafkaesque setting, with four actors and a member of the audience taking the part of 'Geoff', the delivery not only reflects the discontinuous recording of the text but provokes an apt unease in its unpredictability.

The minimalist set has the effect of concentrating the mind on the text and the styles of its delivery which are varied and occasionally at variance with what seems to be being said. Does some of it come across as self-aware? - yes. Does it all make sense on hearing? - no, and yet it is engaging and thought-provoking.

If it is repetitive at times, it is emulating the mundanities of life, and when it risks cliché it is in the characters' attempts to express the need for escape from them, and the struggle of their hidden selves' beneath the safe and acceptable exterior.

This is a wordy piece and director Nicholai La Barrie has used stillness, poses and movement to good effect in keeping up the momentum with only fleeting passages where the focus is tempted away from the spoken by a more interesting visual. A mixed and ambitious lighting design by Pablo Fernandez Baz and judicious use of music work to link as well as to book-end the sketches and avoid this meditative, densely packed text from becoming soporific.

If there is one argument to be had with the piece it would be the unrelenting pessimism in this study on the futility of life, and the absence of any humour. Even at the gallows there can be humour, and if there is some lurking here then it has been stifled.

The Book of Disquiet however remains an absorbing and challenging entertainment and another reason why The Blue Elephant should be on every theatre-goer's map.

"The Book of Disquiet" plays Tuesdays to Saturdays until 2 July with post-show discussions on 23 and 30 June - this is a promenade performance with a few sitting opportunities and a running time of about one hour.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti