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In Blood: The Bacchae

Frances Viner
Arcola Theatre
(2009)

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The Arcola Theatre’s latest production of In Blood: The Bacchae is both innovative and daring. Proudly announcing itself as “Britain’s first ever professional Capoeira production”, In Blood is loosely based on Euripides’ classical Greek tragedy. Part of the 2009 Brazilian Season, In Blood explores a 1920s underworld full of guns and cocaine, corrupt policemen and disaffected knife-wielding thugs.

Into this world is born Besouro, a historical figure who has achieved mythical status as a Brazilian Robin Hood. As an Afro-Brazilian, Besouro was already one of an underclass, suffering the racial harassment of fairer-skinned Brazilians who seemed incapable of accepting the black community in their midst.

Like the Greek god Dionysus, subject of Euripides’ play, Besouro has also suffered the tragic and violent loss of his mother. Describing the horrific scene, Besouro remembers seeing his mother’s body, having been gunned down in the street. He also remembers that the spot where she died is regularly visited by her murderer, who leaves a single red rose on the road. Trouble is, her murderer is Gordilho, now chief of the local police.

Besouro might seek revenge but, like his Greek counterpart, he prefers to humiliate those he hates rather than murder them outright. Besouro practices what Euripides described nearly two-and-a-half thousand years ago as “smooth-tempered self-control”. Instead of avenging angel, Besouro is a scurrying beetle -- a black beetle.

Besouro’s weapon, the game of Capoeira -- part Brazilian martial art, part acrobatic dance and music tradition, full of ritualistic passion and skill derived from an African past. Gordilho is challenged to a duel; his acceptance only highlights his ineffectiveness. Humiliation is the final, devastating blow of a Capoeiristra.

The British actor Greg Hicks has brought his passion for Brazilian culture and for Capoeira to this production. As Gordilho, Hicks encapsulates the corrupt egotistical mania of this tyrannical policeman.

Daon Broni, as the enigmatic Besouro, displays all the machismo of his outlaw’s character. Broni’s physicality and suave precision appears in marked contrast to his stiffly-uniformed protagonist.

Noah Birksted-Breen has directed an interesting play, full of the rhythms and life of Brazil. Music and percussion are its overriding strengths, as are the unbelievable contortions of the Capoeiristras themselves. It is easy to see the development of American break-dancing in the spinning moves of Capoeira. Luiz ‘Toca’ Feliciano and Alexandre Carlão are astonishing artists who writhe and crawl in ritualized combat, Pedro Lima’s intoxicating rhythmic percussion adding to the dramatic dynamism of the piece.

How unfortunate, then, that Frances Viner’s script should seem so plodding in its imagery and vitality. Long periods of introspective self-analysis and exposition are punctuated by all-too-short examples of the Capoeira in full swing. It is the Capoeira which makes this a fascinating theatrical, cultural experience, one worthy of support and interest. For truly remarkable physical theatre, the Arcola’s trip into the streets of Brazil cannot be equalled.

Running until 31st January

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby