Review: Festival de Almada 2015, Portugal

The Berliner Ensemble’s Brecht cabaret was the highlight of the opening days of Portugal’s biggest international theatre festival, writes Mark Brown

As the Edinburgh Festivals, not least the enormous Festival Fringe, approach like a speeding cultural juggernaut, it can be instructive to visit other summer festivals. A flick through the brochure of the 32nd annual Festival de Almada, the largest international theatre festival in Portugal, shows a programme which has intriguing similarities with the live drama on offer in the inaugural programme of new Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan.

The EIF boss’s decision to include tried-and-tested homegrown work (as opposed to a single world premiere representing Scottish theatre) and his programming of more of the kind of work that might be described as “fringe theatre” might seem radical to some. The Almada Festival – which is held in the city of Almada on the south bank of the River Tagus and across the water in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon – has been programming in this way for years.

The Berliner Ensemble. Photo: Thomas Eichhorn
The Berliner Ensemble. Photo: Thomas Eichhorn

The 2015 Almada programme boasts the kind of big, international names that have graced EIF stages over the years. From the famous Berliner Ensemble, to great German director Peter Stein and acclaimed Swiss theatre maker Christoph Marthaler, the Portuguese festival’s 14-day, 27-show programme holds its own against its better known cousins in Edinburgh and the French festival city of Avignon.

However, just as Linehan has opened the EIF to more leftfield, devised theatre (notably in the shape of Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified sinner by Stewart Laing’s currently, and shamefully, unfunded company Untitled Projects), Almada is host to a plethora of experimental and fringe productions.

One example is Joana Craveiro’s A Living Museum Of Small And Forgotten Memories. An attempt to grapple with the continued influence in Portugal of the country’s revolution against fascism in 1974, this four-hour show consists of “one prologue, seven performative lectures and a meal.”

Another fringe work in Almada, which did, indeed, originate on the Edinburgh Fringe, is a Portuguese staging, by Artistas Unidos, of The Events, Scottish dramatist David Greig’s contemplation of the massacre carried out by the Norwegian fascist Anders Breivik.

Diverse though festival director Rodrigo Francisco’s programme is, however, there can be little doubt that the highlight of the opening four days of his programme was the return to Almada of the Berliner Ensemble. Their show, entitled And Times Change…, is a quintessential Berliner production.

The piece brings together the poems and songs of the company’s founder Bertolt Brecht with the music of his collaborators Kurt Weill, Paul Dessau and Hanns Eisler. Musicians and actors, dressed in monochrome, sit opposite each other, as leading Portuguese actor Luis Vicente takes up the role of narrator, linking the songs and scenes for the mainly Lusophone audience.

What ensues is unmistakably German. From Mack The Knife and Pirate Jenny (both from The Threepenny Opera) to The Bilbao Song (from Happy End), the piece is performed with the combination of decadence, anger, uncertainty and cynical humour that characterised the cabaret of the interwar Weimar Republic.

Indeed, so brilliant are the performances of the entire ensemble, not least the superb Claudia Burckhardt (who sings with a sardonic sneer, surely as Brecht intended), that one feels transported to the world depicted in the paintings of Otto Dix and George Grosz. One can hear in every pointedly discordant note and see in every bleak-yet-defiant gesture exactly why the Nazis decried these outstanding and enduring artworks as “entartete musik” (degenerate music).

As the show’s title (And Times Change…), with the crucial ellipsis, implies, there are powerful echoes of the dangerously unstable 1920s and 1930s in our own troubled times. It is appropriate, then, that this production be presented in Portugal, which has, in recent years, teetered on the precipice on which Greece currently stands.

If the Berliner Ensemble offered the most impressive show of the festival’s early days, great things were also expected of its opening show, Marthaler’s King Size. However, as with his My Fair Lady – A Language Laboratory (which played at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2012), I found myself bemused and unmoved by this tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of bourgeois relations.

The colliding of popular and classical songs, combined with ironically over-the-top and clownish performance, has become Marthaler’s postmodern signature. It seems to me all surface. Or, if it has hidden depths, they are very well hidden indeed.

There is a similar lack of depth to Your Best Guess, a patently incomplete Anglo-Portuguese experiment between Lisbon company mala voadora and English theatre maker Chris Thorpe. In this devised piece, two monologues (one in English, the other in Portuguese) are interwoven.

The English narrative considers the plight of a man (and father of two young children) whose wife is in a coma and dangerously close to death. The Portuguese story is of a man in a refugee camp whose encounter with cynically donated surplus products from the West opens his eyes to the absurdities of free market capitalism.

One waits in vain for the substance beneath the often manipulatively sentimental material. What we are offered instead are moments of electronic gimmickry which are as outmoded as they are ineffective.

A mixed beginning, then, to the always ambitious and interesting Almada programme. However, with the likes of Stein’s Italian production of Harold Pinter’s great play The Homecoming and the Romanian National Theatre of Cluj-Napoca’s staging of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard still to come, you wouldn’t bet against the 32nd edition of Festival de Almada going down as one of its best.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 12, 2015

© Mark Brown

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