Vau da Sarapalha

João Guimãraes Rosa
Barbican Pit
(2003)

Grupo Piollin has performed this play in more than 600 performances over a decade to home and international audiences. Watching it I can see why it has stood the test of time. This short performance is at one and the same time so beautifully simple and yet profoundly complex and philosophical in its implications. It is a sublimely modest, yet superb as a piece of theatre in its physicality and earthiness.

Absolute accolades must go to Everaldo Pontes and Nanego Lira as the cousins, both of whom display an invigorating physical acting style while seated throughout on a tree trunk. (But didn't Peter Brook put his chorus for Oedipus Rex through six weeks of intense physical training, even back in the fifties, only to end up chaining them to the floor. And why? Because, you have to learn to move before you can learn to stand still.)

Special effects are all an integral part of this village life: in particular fire. And it is so wonderful to see these basic accruements to life used on stage to stunning effect. Ceicao Sola Lira as the old woman (basically the special effects actor who brings the fire onto the stage) must also be singled out. It is she who is the village elder circling the action, carrying out her daily tasks: those efforts that keep the community alive. In this respect, while she has very little text, she can be seen as a strong representation of womanhood and the centrality of their role as keepers of the community: the cycle of life and death.

While this performance relied mostly on the acting of the two central characters, intense playing beyond what we perceive in Britain, immured as we are with realism, the earthiness of the set, clay pots stacked up and the use of fire, integrated up until the final stunning moment, gave the play a very satisfying sense of wholeness.

The play is based on a novel by João Guimãraes Rosa and it could be seen as having some political pith in its own country. Central to the plot is the devastation caused by the malaria that decimates the village. The two central characters, cousins Ribero and Argemrio, are seated on a tree trunk waiting to die from a disease that there are no drugs to combat. However, their waiting to die is wrapped up in a tale of life and love, around the infatuation that both men have for Ribeiro's wife, who it transpires, was sufficiently strong to break her bonds with the village and run away with a man she loved. Both men long for her, giving a guarded expression to their feelings in a text that is both philosophical and comic.

This is an absolutely superb piece of theatre by a company that heralds from the backwaters of Brazil and has worked with the local community. As a performance it is so finely honed that it is a joy to watch, even if one is not initially attached to the issues at hand. While I think there are political implications here, it doesn't preach. It just gives you a wonderful experience and insights into the lives and loves of village people in Brazil: and their experience could be ours.

This production has also been reviewed by Philip Fisher.

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher