From Edinburgh to Almada – a tale of two festival cities
Edinburgh’s festivals may have succumbed to the Covid-19 pandemic, but elsewhere in Europe celebrations of the arts are coming back to life. Portugal’s Festival de Almada was the first to signal the recovery.
BY MARK BROWN
Edinburgh this August is a city in double mourning. Reeling, like the rest of the UK, from the dreadful ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, Scotland’s capital is now reckoning with the cold reality that the health emergency has closed down its world famous arts festivals for the first time in their 73-year history.
By contrast, Austria’s Salzburg Festival has gone ahead, not as usual (physical distancing and other public health precautions are being observed), but the musical and theatrical show has gone on. Nor were the Austrians the first. That honour goes to Festival de Almada, Portugal’s premier theatre festival, which opened its doors, carefully and tentatively, between July 3 and 26.
An analysis of the relative Covid-19 statistics suggests that the Portuguese and the Austrians are beginning to reap the rewards of government responses to the pandemic that were earlier and more thorough than the “four nations action plan” that put the UK into a form of lockdown on March 23. The UK’s death toll, at around 66,000, the highest per capita in Europe, stands at an appalling one per thousand people; by contrast Portugal’s death toll is 0.34 per thousand, while Austria’s is 0.13.*
In this context, it was somewhat surreal to set off for Festival de Almada, an event that I have attended often as theatre critic of this newspaper and its predecessor the Sunday Herald. I knew that Portugal had gone into a far stricter lockdown (a “state of emergency”, no less), considerably earlier in the curve than the UK.
I also knew that the targeted, local lockdown measures in certain areas of Greater Lisbon that had been announced in late June were evidence, not of the virus getting out of control, but of the relative success of Portugal’s test, track and isolate measures. Nevertheless, as I undertook the permitted “necessary travel” to Lisbon and, across the River Tagus to Almada, I knew that, due to measures introduced by the governments at Westminster and Holyrood, I would have to quarantine for 14 days upon my return to the UK.
Writing this piece from quarantine in Scotland is a decidedly odd experience. Throughout my visit to Portugal I felt much safer than I did walking on a busy Argyle Street in Glasgow shortly after the Scottish government reopened the retail sector in early July.
Accustomed to far stricter Covid measures than the people of Scotland, most Portuguese observe mask wearing and physical distancing assiduously. By late April, the Portuguese government felt confident enough to announce that theatres could reopen, as long as public health precautions were observed.
For Festival de Almada, the annual programme of Portuguese and international theatre staged by Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite/TMJB (the beautiful local theatre of the city of Almada), this meant that their 37th edition could go ahead as planned. The festival is programmed by Rodrigo Francisco, director of TMJB, who took the reins following the death in 2012 of the event’s founder (and Francisco’s mentor), the great theatre director Joaquim Benite.
Going ahead “as planned” was only possible, Francisco tells me when we meet at TMJB, because the festival had not only a plan A, but also “plans B, C and D”. “We never stopped preparing the festival”, the director explains.
For Francisco, it was his duty to continue planning to hold the festival, in one form or another, in case the government announced the reopening of Portugal’s theatres. “We didn’t say ‘we’re not going to do it’ because this theatre is not ours, it belongs to the citizens”, he says.
“We organise the festival, but we do it with public funding. We didn’t have the right to say, ‘okay, we go home.’ That’s not what we do.
“Our public duty is to make theatre happen for people. I couldn’t understand some theatres that closed down in March and said they would be back in September.”
The consequence of the director’s preparedness was that Festival de Almada was able to present a reduced, but nevertheless impressive, programme of theatre. The large scale international shows, which, this year, were due to include works from countries such as Germany, France and Ireland, had to be cancelled, due to the uncertainty over air travel.
However, the festival managed to maintain an international dimension with productions from Italy, Spain and Catalonia. The companies bringing these shows agreed that, if flights were an issue, they would travel to Portugal by road.
The new Portuguese work, with the exception of Francisco’s own production of Martyr by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, had to be cancelled. However, the gaps in the programme were filled by existing, Portuguese single-actor productions, which are far easier to stage under coronavirus conditions.
The staging of the festival, while Portugal’s National Theatres in Lisbon and Porto remained closed until the autumn, met with considerable approval from the political class. The opening nights were attended by such luminaries as the president of the republic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, prime minister Antonio Costa and state secretary for culture Nuno Artur Silva.
“We are the first summer theatre festival in Europe that actually took place”, says Francisco. “For those in political power it was important to show people that it was possible to keep on with our lives, whilst keeping to the coronavirus rules, of course.”
Interestingly, the director is not aware of anyone within the Portuguese political class or the mainstream media who criticised his decision to go ahead with this year’s festival. There may have been criticism on social media, he says, but he doesn’t look at it.
At the festival itself one is constantly aware of the (too) much vaunted “new normal”. In the venues, audience members are required to mask-up before entering.
Encouraged by staff to enter two metres apart, and to use the hand sanitiser available at every theatre entrance, festival goers are seated according to strict social distancing. At the end of the show, ushers empty the auditorium row-by-row.
Most of the programme is comprised of smaller scale shows, but Francisco has programmed as many as five productions at any given time, in order to spread audiences around. The director is the first to acknowledge that this way of doing things, with box office takings for each show slashed by more than half, is not commercially sustainable in the longer term.
However, he stands by his decision to press ahead with this year’s programme. The question of public health was one for the authorities, and Francisco followed their instructions to the letter.
The decision to stage the festival came about, the director explains, following a full-scale phone survey of the event’s 600 loyal subscribers. In April theatre staff called everyone on the subscription list, asking them, firstly, how they were coping with the pandemic, and, secondly, if they would be interested in coming to the festival if the conditions allowed it to go ahead.
More than half said they would attend, many others said they would buy a subscription for someone else. “When you have more than 300 people saying they want to come – at a time when people could not go out of their homes, except to go to the supermarket – it gives you a sense of the importance of this festival, of theatre, and of art in general to people’s lives”, comments Francisco.
The audience, Covid-aware and encouragingly diverse in its age demographic, was treated to a number of theatrical gems. Superb Italian actor Mario Pirovano presented his late friend and mentor Dario Fo’s solo piece Johan Padan and the Discovery of America, while Catalan performer Agnes Mateus played Rebound Rebound and Your Face Explodes, a high-octane, excoriating, darkly comic work about domestic violence against women.
In the Portuguese programme, Andre Murracas presented his noirish one-man play The Servant, based upon the famous film of Robin Maugham’s novel, starring Dirk Bogarde. The A Turma company, from Porto, staged Tiago Correia’s new play Turismo, a contemporary contemplation of the impact on Portugal of a tourism that is, ironically, largely absent in these times.
For his part, Francisco felt fortunate that, in having opted, pre-pandemic, to produce a play with entirely young and middle-aged characters, he could continue rehearsals of Martyr through the spring. In the preparatory Zoom meetings with the cast, people were dubious about the possibility of conducting real rehearsals in the studio.
However, “when we got in the rehearsal room, the problem was solved in five minutes”, the director says. “I kept the mask on, and they took theirs off.”
Such abandon might seem blasé, even reckless to some in the Covid-ravaged UK. However, perhaps it is the fruit of Portugal’s earlier and more thorough response to the pandemic.
Few, if any countries – not Portugal, not Austria, and certainly not the nations of the UK – are out of the Covid woods yet. But Festival de Almada points towards a more hopeful future for our culture.
*Source: Financial Times analysis of excess deaths data
This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on August 9, 2020
© Mark Brown