Grupo XIX de Teatro
Great Hall, St Bartholomew's Hospital

Production photo

As a gesture to a British audience this company from São Paulo in Brazil has worked hard to play in English for its appearance here, with just a few passages and phrases left in Portuguese. It is not always easy to follow, especially in the acoustic of this great space, and I probably didn't clearly hear much more than half of it. But that didn't stop the performers -- five women - from holding holding an audience spell-bound for an hour and a half without a break.

It is an audience that is rigorously sexually divided: men singled out to climb the staircase past Hogarth's murals to enter the great hall first. We are seated on three rows of upholstered benches along one side of the hall which has been partially screened off to reduce the performance space. We are in a mental institute in Brazil in 1897, the kind of place to which families consigned not just those truly ill but others whose behaviour had caused social embarrassment; but we men are not really present, we are spectators on sufferance.

Four of the inmates are already there. One woman is dusting and polishing less comfortable looking benches ranged facing us, another is crouched in a corner scribbling on the wall, another sits on one of the deep window ledges and one is on the floor taking what might be folded letters out of a cloth bag: later she prises up a section of a floorboard and hides the bag beneath.

Meanwhile the women are being led it by a fifth woman who seems to be some sort of matron or keeper. She orders them to sit to her direction on the benches or ranged in front of them on the floor. They are entering the real hospital, but are they visitors to the institution or new inmates? When assembled she gives them a set of rules which must be observed.

The nineteenth-century inmates in their long white dresses begin to talk to the twentieth-century women, one to one, sharing something of their past lives, whispering certain details that clearly surprise or shock the hearer. One claims she is definitely leaving today, people are coming to fetch her (we later realise it is a delusion). The inmates begin to ask questions too, simple ones: what's your name? are you married? Do you have children? They are sometimes astounded by the twentieth century answers. They play tricks on the nurse/warder, stealing the 'diary' in which she keeps her records and hiding it with one of the visitors who complicitly stays mum when its return is demanded. We hear of God's kindness to a poor family who would not abandon their children: God took them all to heaven. The bag of letters is retrieved and some of the visitors are invited to read them out; the inmates break the rules and open windows, the nurse rushes to close them; one woman boasts of her many sexual conquests; another tells of her five children, naming them finger by finger.

Gradually a bonding is taking place between inmates and visitors, especially between one gentle voiced inmate and the woman she has decided to make a special friend. In some of the exchanges across the centuries the inmates say they see why the modern women have been sent there The nurse chooses one visitor and puts her through the induction process, an appraisal of personal characteristics and a few questions. Is she becoming a patient? A prayer session is held, some of the visitors brought to join it. Asked what they would like to ask God for these participants play safe and ask for generalities: peace, happiness, health but there is no awkwardness or embarrassment. The interaction between cast and visitors is handled with great tact and skill.

We learn a little about individual lives, include glimpses into those of some visitors, some of them amusing but the mood created is such that the laughter, even the men's, is supportive. What we are watching is both a picture of world that really was and a metaphor for the male constriction of female lives in the days before emancipation and, for the watching males, a questioning of their attitudes today.

An inmate begins to dance, holding a bench against her as though it were a male partner, until the nurse removes it. Others dance with each other, then ask some of the visitors to join. One spinning dancer looks like going out of control. Soon there are great rings of women dancing and a huge sense of euphoria but it is obviously against the rules and before it can get totally out of control the nurse stops them. By now there is no real division between cast and audience - except for the excluded spectating males. But then come moments of real hysteria. However like ourselves, some of these women were, or there incarceration has made them, genuine cases. Where is the border that defines sanity?

By the time windows are flung open and both inmates and visitors get a sense of liberation something very special has happened that defeats comment as a critic. I cannot adequately describe it, only attempt a glimpse of this fine performance by Evelyn Klein, Janaina Leite, Juliana Saches, Mara Helleno and Sara Antunes, directed by a man, Luiz Fernano Marques.

At the moment it is sold out except for one 3pm performance on 14th June. Get tickets while you can!

Part of the Barbican bite08 programme in association with People's Palace Projects
Until 14th June 2008
There will be a post-show talk with the director and members of the company after the performance on 12th

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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