Thankfully There Is Moonlight!
Adapted, translated & produced by Alice de Sousa
Galleon Theatre Company Greenwich Playh
Thankfully there is Moonlight! (Felizmente há Luar!), with which the Galleon Theatre company opened its 2007 season at Greenwich Playhouse, was written in 1961 by one of Portugal's greatest 20th century playwrights, Luis Infante de Lacerda Sttau Monteiro. His father was Portuguese ambassador in London but was removed from that position by dictator Salazar. The writer, who first practiced as a lawyer and became a Formula Two racing driver before concentrating on plays, books and journalism, was himself arrested in 1968 by the PIDE (Portugal's Political Police) and thrown into a concentration camp.
The play won the Portuguese Writers' Society Great Prize of Theater in 1962 but was promptly banned by Salazar's Fascist government. Although the action is set in the early nineteenth century, its story of oppression and injustice in the wake of Napoleon's invasion could too easily be seen as an allegory for contemporary repression and poverty.
It continued to circulate clandestinely and was staged in Paris in 1969, but it was not until after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974 and the establishment of a democratic Portugal that it received its first performance there in 1978. It has had to wait even longer for its British premiere. This is its first performance in another language, the translation being by Galleon Theatre's producer Alice de Sousa, who also plays the role of Matilde.
The play is based on historical fact - the execution of a general on false charges in 1817. It opens with a group of the poor watching the arrival of General Gomes Freire de Andrade and his army. A starving old soldier, now reduced to beggary, tells us what a good man Gomes Friere is and how much he cares for the people.
Scenes move between these destitute people and the court of the Governor - the king is still living in Brazil where he fled Napoleon - where the authorities fear the influence of revolutionary France on the populace. They plan to stifle insurrection by the execution of a revolutionary leader before there is one.
Governor Dom Miguel, played by Brooke Hender to suggest an insecurity that occasions his cruel ruthlessness, and Rufus Graham's silky-voiced Cardinal Sousa pick on the popular General as their victim and with the help of spies and self-seeking informers have him arrested while a grandiloquent English mercenary (Michael Hucks), engaged to reorganize the Portuguese army, stands aloof, dreaming of the English countryside and demanding his wages.
It is not until well into the second half of the play that we meet the General's mistress Matilde, who, with his friend Falcao (Samuel Lewis), comes to plead for her lover's life but is turned away. From afar she watches the flames in which the hanged General's body is burned and sees his death as the flame which will spark resistance. (Some years later, in 1834 there were indeed revolts that lead to a new liberalism in Portugal.)
This is not a story told in personal terms. The writing shows us very different character types and almost everyone has a spot-lit speech but, apart from the horrific fascination in watching the cold cunning of Church, State and Army as they connive together, and Matilde's rejected plea, much is reported rather than shown. Bruce Jamieson's production seeks to build dramatic tension with frequent musical underscoring.
Such deliberate melodramatic effect, together with a general deliberation in speech and the numerous soliloquy-like speeches makes things somewhat self-consciously portentous. But this is a play about issues rather than personal stories, though there is no real presentation of or argument about the politics behind it - it really is just us and them. Perhaps that would not matter to a Portuguese audience who might well know the background and rejoice in the representation of a famous incident.
In the absence of any setting other than black walls, Robert Gooch's lighting becomes particularly important and designer Rachel Baynton has cleverly dressed her aristos on a minimal budget. With actors sometimes having to imagine the characters they are addressing - and in one case giving us their lines - I could not help wondering whether the author had intended a large cast to represent the common people and whether this would have changed the balance of the piece. The Portuguese poor may not have been politicized in 1817 but a crowd of beggars might have shown us the potential for confrontation. Today this play may seem somewhat simplistic, but it is not difficult to see what an effect it could have had on the audience for which it was intended over 40 years ago.
Performances continue until 11th March
Reviewer: Howard Loxton