Feature: Almada Theatre Festival, Portugal, 2010

When Hamlet stalked the stages of Almada:

Mark Brown immerses himself in Portugal’s leading theatre festival:

The small Portuguese city of Almada, which sits on the south bank of the great River Tagus, seems like a picture of modest urbanism. Certainly, its unremarkable 20th-century tenement blocks can’t compare with the decaying, colonial grandeur and romantic, Moorish streets of Portugal’s beautiful capital city, Lisbon, on the opposite bank.

However, despite its seeming normality, Almada boasts the most important international theatre festival in the country. With the financial support of the municipality – which is led by the city’s longstanding mayor, Maria Emília Neto de Sousa, a member of the Portuguese Communist Party – this remarkable festival, which presents work in theatres in both Almada and across the river in Lisbon, might be considered an experiment in municipal socialism.

Which does not mean that this is a festival full of Brecht plays and lesser works of left-wing agitprop. Joaquim Benite, the director of the Almada Theatre Company, has been programming this fortnight-long festival since its inception 27 years ago, and he does so with a real emphasis on theatrical quality.

This was certainly true of the programme last time I was in Almada, in 2008, when the late, great Peter Zadek’s Peer Gynt and Chilean maestro Jaime Lorca’s extraordinary staging of Gulliver’s Travels led the bill. It was also the case this year, as I arrived for the closing week of the festival.

Iconoclastic Swiss director Matthias Langhoff’s four-and-a-half hour, French-language Hamlet Cabaret is a case in point. Even if one is not convinced of the overall coherence of the piece – which features cabaret music in the style of Brecht’s great collaborator Kurt Weill, a late middle-aged Hamlet and a real horse (which inevitably defecated on stage) – there is no doubting its vitality and virtuosity.

Visually startling at times, it offers a truly brilliant rendering of the famous “to be, or not to be” speech, in which superb actor François Chattot pops up suddenly within the audience and delivers the speech directly to one individual in the crowd.

The strong French strand in the programme continued with Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s staging of Odon von Horvath’s play Casimir And Caroline. Set in a German amusement park in 1931, it is another visually impressive production, even if the physical and vocal performance style is, perhaps, a bit bombastic at times.

A short, painfully sweet taste of fado – Portugal’s most famous style of traditional song – was offered in an unusual show by leading singer Aldina Duarte. Incorporating instruments – such as the harp – which are not typically associated with fado, and using projected images of contemporary dance, she sang a series of the saddest songs, giving spectacular voice to that most Portuguese of concepts, “saudades” (which perhaps translates best, but incompletely, into English as “painful yearning”).

Performed in Lisbon’s opulent São Luiz theatre, the show put fado in an elevating theatrical context.

Finally, to the National Theatre Dona Maria II in Lisbon, where the wonderful English actress Charlotte Rampling is reading the French text in the Franco-Greek production Yourcenar/Cavafy (which draws on the letters between the French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar and the Greek poet Constantin Cavafy).

In truth, the piece is barely theatre, and sometimes badly realised at that (at one point Cavafy embraces Yourcenar, only for us to hear his microphone scraping on her back).

That said, now aged 64, Rampling is an actress of such grace and presence that I, for one, would willingly pay to watch her read the telephone directory.

This article was first published in the Sunday Herald on 26 July 2010

© Mark Brown

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