40th Almada Theatre Festival
(4 – 18 July, 2023)
In 2019 when – little imagining what was waiting for us just around the corner – I first attended the Almada Festival in Portugal (see https://playsinternational.org.uk/festival-of-almada-portugal-2019/), I was struck by the community feeling to the festival, and now finally post-Covid in 2023, the fortieth year of its existence, the festival is again a rare combination of a friendly community celebration of culture on one hand and on the other a presentation of famous directors’ works, celebrating playwrights and performing artists of the highest calibre.
Between these are conferences, talks, ample inexpensive dining areas in the esplanade of the Almada theatres principally used for the festival and international music including groups from Europe, Africa, and South America. Another offering is a display of photos and drawings of all the theatres the festival has used in its 40 years of existence as well as testimonials of precisely 40 words about the festival by 40 repeat audience members. The Almada Festival is practicing a form of Total Theatre, and the results are dynamic and can be surprising.
I give here a critical review of some of the performances at the festival. Of greatest interest to my readers are, perhaps, Peter Stein’s production in Italian of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Milo Rau’s Everywoman in German. Unfortunately, I was not present long enough to see a Portuguese interpretation of Thomas Bernhard’s Minetti, entitled Calvário, written and directed by Almada Festival’s artistic director Rodrigo Francisco. Nor was I there to report on another highlight of the international offerings: Life is a Dream (presented in Spanish as La vida es sueño with surtitles in Portuguese) by Pedro Calderón da la Barca directed by Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan which a colleague has reviewed in London.
As spin-offs or sidebars to this article there are some brief items I’ve entitled “The Audience Speaks” from habitual attendees of the festival including those who make it function smoothly, a summary of what Peter Stein said about his career and his latest production, and a photo testimony to the various additional features of the festival which give it verve and authenticity.
Dana Rufolo, August 2023
Love and Conformity in The Birthday Party directed by Peter Stein
Peter Stein’s interpretation of The Birthday Party (Il compleanno in Italian, and O aniversário in Portuguese) by Harold Pinter which came from the Tieffe Teatro Milano recreates the ambiguity of character motivations in the original play and yet also offers the richness of profound psychological insight that turns the play in the direction of realism rather than absurdity. Realism is reinforced by Ferdinand Wögerbauer’s set of a simple wall in a green house with various openings and a downstage dining table.
Stein’s The Birthday Party is not pervaded by a vague “comedy of menace” – to use a popular and defining term coined by the late theatre critic Irving Wardle who was a contributor to this magazine. We are witnessing the human condition, Stanley being portrayed by Alessandro Averone as an adult driven into infantilism, Meg as his substitute mother, and Petey (Fernando Maraghini) as his substitute father. That is its charm, its identifying characteristic: Stein’s interpretation seems intent on explaining away the vagueness of characters’ motivations in the play by digging down to the bare bones of human relationships which is an innate need to love and inherent need to conform.
Immediately, Meg stands out. She exhibits the innate need to love in all its facets. I have no doubt that although there may well be any number of reasons for Stein to have chosen to produce The Birthday Party, one of them is his desire to showcase the extraordinary talent of his wife, the famous Italian actress Maddalena Crippa. She plays Meg with wild abandon, glowing self-admiration, and ingenuousness. Her unchecked feminine personality acts like an armour protecting her from the cruelty of existence that hovers outside of her magnetic magical force and which is to some extent abated by her naivete. A dominating female presence on stage does much to mitigate original sentiments about the play when it was produced in England in 1958 and the focus was on the persecutory Goldberg and McCann.
One recognises Crippa’s special qualities as an actress the moment she responds to her husband’s recitation of a news item telling of a child born out of wedlock. She asks a searing question about the child’s gender. I would far prefer a male child, she emphasizes in a way that tells us immediately that she is childless, but also – so subtle an actress is she – posits already the existence of a child substitute in her life – since her apparent grief over her childlessness is somehow mitigated, making us – whether we are familiar with the play or not – logically anticipate that her long-term boarder Stanley functions psychologically as her son.
Gianluigi Fogacci, Maddalena Crippa, Alessandro Averone
in The Birthday Party. Photo credit: Axel Hörhager.
Of course, the analogy is not total. Meg has never been a mother, and consequently her extremely flirtatious relationship with Stanley – played to the hilt by Crippa – comes across not as incestuous but rather as the product of her innocence. Stanley disappears at the end, because he is not her son and he is not a child and she cannot protect him – she has neither the means to protect him nor the awareness of the need for defending him against these nice new short-term boarders who are so smitten by her vivacious unusual personality that they present a kind, almost amiable face to her.
Indeed, Goldberg played by Gianluigi Fogacci is a grandfatherly character whose benign good intentions mask his conspiracy to commit evil; he never drops the kindly appearance to reveal anger, hatred, sadism, or any other emotional motivation for his systematic destruction of the last shreds of human dignity in Stanley. Even his relationship with Lulu has an avuncular quality to it – he seduces her, clearly as her angry speech the morning after reveals, but almost unwillingly, having asked her repeatedly to go and sit anywhere rather than on his lap.
In order to demystify the uncanny atmosphere that hangs like a smell over the entire production, Stein latches onto the interpretation that Stanley is a childlike creature plunged into the confusing world of adults. Stanley, as interpreted by Averone, is so passive that everyone is allowed to impose their own fantasies about who he is or who he should be; this also includes Meg’s desire to infantilize Stanley, as is revealed in the terribly painful scene where we understand that Stanley is literally shocked to see he has been given a child’s drum as a birthday gift. Even everyone ignoring his protest that it is not his birthday is proof of how Stanley has been plunged into the hell of having lost all capacity to influence the characters around him.
In his entrance scene, Stanley blunders to the breakfast table unkempt, wearing an undershirt, a pyjama top, joggings, and carpet slippers (costume by Anna Maria Heinreich), his face unwashed, unshaven, and his hair still dishevelled from sleep. He plays with his cereal and spits out his food in the manner of a rebellious teenager. Meg patiently cleans up after him or teases him very much as an adoring mother might. Even Goldberg and McCann in the play’s final scene coo the encouraging words one associates with parents praising their young boy (“You will be a success, you will be a man”) as they dress him – as passive as a corpse but acting like someone dazed or absent – in braces, shirt, grey pants, and grey bowler hat that resemble their own outfits before leading him – incoherent – out of the house and into their offstage car. And yet, Stanley’s final utterances are not the babbling sounds a baby makes but the distressed sounds of a wounded animal.
The famous lines when McCann and Goldberg encroach upon Stanley, hunting him into submission with their quick accusations and threats as they weave around him – in ‘S’ shapes rather than in the circles that Pinter himself chose as footwork when he played Goldberg – switches the interpretation into depth- psychology. These three men could possibly be one, the two new to Stanley being something like phantasmagoria embodying his own interior monologue. The intricate choreography of the characters’ movements during the blackout party scene reinforces the idea that they are bound by an invisible connection.
Stein’s The Birthday Party has an all-Italian cast and is performed in Italian. For the Almada audience, surtitles in Portuguese were provided. Stein retreated with his cast to his base in Italy where they developed the drama together as a group during six weeks. The most original and significant aspect to this production is how Stein helped Crippa develop a definitive Meg character of great vibrancy. The final words of the drama are hers when she says that she was the life of the party (referencing the nightmarish birthday party of the previous night and revealing herself to be an unreliable witness). Crippa is such a phenomenal actress that she has the power to create a definitive role. A Modellrolle, one could call it – as opposed to a Modellbuch; let us not forget that Stein is German and worked chiefly in Berlin.
The other Italian actors are also strong presences. McCann played by Alessandro Sampaoli with his thrust-forward neck giving the impression that he is sniffing the air resembles a bloodhound on the trail of its prey, easily swayed and controlled by his boss. Charming Lulu played by Emilia Scatigno is affectionate and tolerant of the other characters and has a weakness for men of action – Goldberg personifying this type for her. A humorous dramatic moment is when she brings over a box and needs to talk to Stanley, the opposite of a man of action: she blows a bubble of gum that confronts him as she obstinately moves forward, obliging him to retreat, stumblingly.
Curiously, the authenticity of the Italian acting style – the way the women flirt without being vulgar, the civility of the intruders, and the obvious fact of them speaking Italian – gives the play an outside-UK aura that, for me at least, is shattered whenever retained English names and places are referenced. The translator Alessandra Serra, in close collaboration with Stein, chose to keep the original names for the sake of authenticity. The references to English geographical points of interest taken from the original Pinter script, like the bizarre consumption of tea by these Italians, ring out as the truly absurdist elements in this entire interpretation of The Birthday Party. I began thinking that one of Eugène Ionesco’s plays – The Bald Soprano for instance – had slipped itself briefly into this Pinter drama.
Another small point that is worth mentioning is that in this realistically framed The Birthday Party, the absence of money exchanges seems odd. Goldberg and McCann come to the boarding house and go without any sign of payment, Meg shops without any reference to expenses, and there is little to indicate that Stanley is paying his way. In a child’s magical world, money has no meaning, but it is Pinter telling this drama, not Stanley.
Disaster Shows: Optraken by the Galactik Ensemble and Minuit by the Yoann Bourgeois Art Company
Chicken Little of fairytale fame is known for her panicky cry, “The sky is falling!” And what does she and all the other animals do once she has alerted them to lurking disaster? They run away as fast as ever they can.
But the audience watching the five French acrobats of Optraken being relentlessly bombarded by objects falling from the flies – or sideways in the case of moving walls and shooting tennis balls – didn’t run away. They watched with amusement. The athletic performers dodge the falling table and lamp and full white plastic sacks that land on the stage floor with an accompanying rumbling sound indicting a hard impact. We watched these men in constant peril in their Chicken Little world and laughed with something like comic relief.
Of the two “disaster shows” I saw; the audience enjoyed this production by the Galactik Ensemble the more; we were up there on stage in our collective imagination dodging the unexpected calamities, relaxing for a split second, almost too long – watch out, Boommmmm! – quick, left, right, and now yet again, turn fast …. Booommmmm!: see a bunch of plastic flowers, a bouquet worthy of Chagall, sticking to what it lands on, luckily not the actor’s head or backside.
Only twice was a word spoken. Both times the same word, in English: “Help! Help!” And the roped upside-down actor or the one caught in a great big dark plastic garbage bag hanging from the flies do get help; as people do in disaster scenarios, these men find their common humanity and help each other regardless of peacetime differences. So it came across: the actors playing with a rigorous abandon – sometimes not altogether avoiding the falling objects, so the events seem haphazardly experiential, not an act but a call into action by the compelling force of objects coming with the regularity of bombs from the stage’s sky. It is a clever portrayal of angst without paranoia or even blame, a humorous human success story that ends in survival: All five of the agile male performers took the curtain call!
The ensemble of Optraken.
Photo credit: Nicolas Martinez/Almada Theatre Festival.
Photo credit: Axel Hörhager.
Unreliable material objects humorously interact at cross purposes to the performers’ intentions in Minuit by the Yoann Bourgeois Art Company who are based in France. These are everyday objects, like a dainty chair that collapses and reshapes itself independent of the actors’ will so they never have a chance to sit properly or stairs from which an actor slips just as he intends to climb them.
One of the performers jumps from a trampoline on a level with the stage to a set of stairs to its stage left; he bounces ever higher but it is only after considerable effort that he manages a powerful enough jump to reach the top rung by return propulsion. The audience applauds.
This second “disaster show” is a seamless fusion of dance and circus, three choreographers, and performance artists trained in dancing and gymnastics. Narrative is a part of the show, with a story (told in overlapping Portuguese and French) that seems to be a love story, told by loudspeakers during a graceful scene where a female performer is half enclosed within an oversized doll resembling a common childhood toy of the kind that has a weighted bottom so you can push it over but it always bounces upright again. There are various verbal vignettes, none connected to the other. A harpist who accompanies many of the scenes does connect them with a rhythmic fluidity and grace that reduce the urgency of Minuit’s disaster message to an ironic wink at the unreliability of everyday objects to live up to their reputation of staid solidity.
Photo credit: Yoann Bourgeois Art Company.
This quixotic performance piece shows people meeting challenges and is, again as in Optraken, a metaphor for people overcoming the obstacles life throws at them.
I label these pieces “disaster shows” for they seem to reflect a common state of angst – comprehensibly so given the nightmarish war going on at the edge of Europe and all the other alterations in life as we knew it. They suggest that, like Chicken Little, we all intuit that the sky is falling down. These performance pieces reflect that insecurity.
Nothing but the Truth: Everywoman with Ursina Lardi, directed by Milo Rau
A shooting star or comet among European directors, Milo Rau was invited to stage the traditional Jedermann (Everyman) for the 2020 Salzburg Festival. Rather than presenting an interpretation of this Hugo von Hofmannsthal play, Rau – in association with his favourite German actress Ursina Lardi – crafted and presented a new play, Everywoman, for Salzburg. Everywoman then went to the Schaubühne in Berlin and has since been touring. It was a highlight of the international offerings of the 2023 Almada Festival.
Everywoman – as does Everyman – discusses the theme of death, its inevitability and its impact on our living, by combining a film projected on a long rectangular screen over the stage featuring Helga Bedau, a retired teacher with terminal cancer who was recorded during the final months of her life. Lardi is solitary on stage, surrounded by a grey rock (resembling at least for me the enormous rock in the René Magritte painting Clear Ideas that is suspended between sky and water, but which, I have read, is meant to represent the alpine setting in which she grew up), a piano, a portable radio, boxes containing files, and rain and puddles on the stage floor covered in tarpaulin. Lardi speaks to Bedau, asks her questions, and receives reflected answers.
The convincing dialogue exchange between stage actress and filmed figure was accomplished by careful editing of the original film. For instance, Bedau says she is thirsty and asks for water, and Lardi goes out of a stage door carrying a glass of water and miraculously appears with the identical clothing and hair style an appropriate number of minutes later in the film which is located on a screen above the stage to offer her that very glass of water.
Lardi says she cannot accept the reality of her dying, but Bedau has embraced her own inevitable disappearance with calm. The striking aspect to this production is the meticulously rational and logical way in which both women address the inevitabilities of human existence. Lardi’s crisp, direct and emotionally whitewashed way of speaking struck me all the more strongly as an existential position because it is a stark contrast to the other shows that I’ve reported on in the Almada Festival which contain elements of playfulness and humour.
In Everywoman, asking philosophical questions and searching for answers is a means to avoid the full impact of the awful tragedy of death. To question is to maintain control and therefore becomes an act of kindness; in this manner the two women internalize Knowledge and Good Deeds, the only characters who do not abandon dying Everyman in the original medieval morality play on which von Hofmannsthal based his own drama.
Ursula Lardi in Everywoman.
Photo credit: Axel Hörhager.
The play begins with the film indirectly referencing the original Jedermann script as interpreted in previous Salzberg Jedermann stagings – for instance the now classical Jedermann featuring Nicholas Ofczarek and directed by Christian Stückl that played from 2010 to 2012. As in that production, the first scene is at a lavish banquet table. In the film, Bedau is seated at a banquet table surrounded by family and friends; Lardi asks Bedau about her life and we learn she most enjoyed the years of freedom (“Freiheit” – the stage language is German) of 1968 that included the joyful memory of eating with friends the food they had stolen from a local grocery store. Lardi plays a cantata by Bach on the on-stage piano in her honour.
Bedau falls asleep during the film – apparently, she did not do so for theatrical reasons but because the medication she continued to take during the filming triggers episodes of sudden deep sleep. While Bedau’s face with her closed eyes remains visible on the screen, Lardi is on stage, recounting. She tells about a son who chose to leave his mother in Germany at the age of 12 to go and live with his Greek father in Greece. I was not one hundred percent sure which woman’s son it was, though subsequently I have read other critics’ reports suggesting that the son is Bedau’s – that Lardi was actively feeding us details of Bedau’s biography while the sick woman dozed. However, it is significant that the dialogue left scope for confusion; the women are intertwined by then – sharing the fact of a common fate that makes them similar retrospectively.
In a breathtaking finale, Bedau is seated in a chair that gradually recedes; she and her chair are a progressively more miniscule image until it is just a twinkling star, and then it is not even that. The image has vanished. Lardi stands on stage, alive and alone.
Background reading for the projects abounds. Guilherme Marovas
at the esplanade bookstand. Photo credit: Axel Hörhager.
Esplanade with music and homestyle cooking.
Photo credit: Axel Hörhager.