“We just put an ad out for swingers.”
Jorge Andrade gestures wildly, defying the assumption that one must actually hold onto the steering wheel when driving at speed. He is discussing casting methods with a car packed with squashed but smiling actors. They know the story. Jorge, artistic director of Portuguese company mala voadora, has a tendency to employ non-actors as a way of bringing reality crashing into his plays. In this particular production, 3D, he found a willing pair to crash in and then subsequently make love on stage as both audience and actors looked on. Jorge shrugs, his eyes smile innocently above his mustache and his hands return to the wheel. For now.
Jorge Andrade was already a successful actor when he decided he wanted to start doing things his own way. At first he invited others to direct him in the projects he conceived. Then, when he felt ready, he started to direct himself and others in his shows. He found a lifelong collaborator in designer and architect José Capela, with whom he founded mala voadora. Since their first show The Strindberg Trilogy opened in May 2003, there have been 23 productions. Increasingly these include co-productions with larger companies, bringing national recognition; Jorge’s shows are making a lot of noise.
Tonight, however, should be a quieter affair. Jorge pulls into the peaceful town of Sobral de Monte Agraço, 30 miles out of Lisbon. The cast get out, stretch their legs and head through the streets. The only noise is the huzz of cicadas. They turn a corner and are greeted by the theatre sitting proudly in the town square. The Cine-Teatro before them is one of many built across Portugal in the nineties by a socialist government keen to increase the presence of the arts in local communities. They were completed in time for a string of right wing governments to disregard them, most failing to even open. These oft empty buildings indicate the priorities of a Portuguese political system which failed to maintain a single minister of culture for more than a year between 2000 and 2013, before finally scrapping the position altogether. These and other facts are readily and frequently available from artists who refuse to ignore a government ignoring them.
“How are you going to start a revolution with that kind of alarm clock?”
It’s earlier in the day and the company are rehearsing Dead End, a new piece written by English writer Chris Thorpe. An actor has arrived late, a common occurrence that Jorge accepts when living in a city that dances till dawn. However, time is tighter today; the company finish earlier to join the latest demonstration against austerity measures. They join the crowds clutching red carnations: the symbol of the ‘Revolução dos Cravos’, the peaceful revolution of 25th April 1974, when the Portuguese people marched against the 42 year rule of Estado Novo. Thrust in the air, they are potent reminders that the people have the power of social change.
In Portugal, theatre has been a legitimate tool of that social change. Under Estado Novo theatre was strictly censored, but as civil resistance began, companies such as Comuna Teatro de Pesquisa began to use more politically charged texts in an exciting new dawn for Portuguese theatre. Recently, however, Jorge feels that things have begun to stagnate, with form failing to progress along with content. He sees his work with mala voadora as an opportunity to move Portuguese theatre forward.
Inside the Cine-Teatro, the company enter the 216 seat theatre and are met by Capela’s arresting design, a communist assembly hall sitting defiantly on stage. This is the set of mala’s show Revelação, an adaptation of Doestevsky’s The Devils. Sort of. A description nervously shuffling between the simplistic and the migraine-inducing might suggest that Revelation, rather than a stage adaptation of Doestevsky’s tale of Imperial Russia, is actually a meta-theatrical piece about adaptation itself. Jorge places on stage two warring groups of performers with vastly different agendas as a way of exploring his most pressing concern: the Bourgeois appropriation of theatre.
To explain: As the company advocate in Dead End, there is a line that can be traced from folk stories, through melodrama, to the most prevalent form in Portugal today: the soap opera. These are the forms Jorge describes as Bourgeois Drama. OverDrama, another collaboration with Thorpe, was a piece which exposed bourgeois devices such as adultery, family mishaps and implausible coincidences used to maintain a domestic focus, avoiding wider political contexts. This narrow view is coupled with a simple binary of goodies and baddies where misfortune is beyond the control of the victim, thus negating the individual’s ability to change their circumstances. All this is done, Jorge feels, to maintain the bourgeois lie. It is the gulf between this lie and reality that Jorge attempts to stage.
Often this gulf is exposed by placing real people amongst the bourgeois drama. In 3D, as well as the decidedly uninhibited couple, other non-actors shared the stage, building the set, washing the costumes etc as the actors performed the melodrama. In this way, Jorge hoped to present the unseen workers who must be exploited to support the bourgeois lifestyle.
In Revelation, Jorge has yet again found his non-actors. The conceit of the show is that a theatre company are putting on a production of The Devils with a small town community. Mala ‘play’ the theatre company. And the small town community? Enter twelve of Sobral’s finest. The mix of locals meet the actors excitedly and warm introductions go on for some time. This is the seventh time mala have put on Revelation, their touring show taken across Portugal, engaging communities with their local Cine-Teatro. In Revelation, Jorge presents the use of bourgeois drama as a mode of repression. The mala actors, most of whom also act in soap operas themselves, play the troupe of actors who focus on the domestic elements of The Devils and disregard the politics, bullying and exploiting the local community who begin to plot a revolt.
Rehearsals begin and it’s hard to differentiate between the intended and unintended cock-ups. Jorge is patient with the community cast, whose earnest ‘non-acting’ really does create something extraordinary put alongside the expert performances of the mala actors. As their confidence grows, it might just be the meta-boundaries blurring, but it really does look like a community united in a common cause.
At the end of the night Jorge and his actors return to the car tired but happy, waved goodbye by the beaming locals. Tomorrow morning Jorge will return to Dead End rehearsals and then again to Sobral de Monte Agraço. After Revelation plays here the company will start the process again with the people of Montijo and then Barreiro after that and Palmela after that. In between these community projects, Jorge continues to internationally tour with What I Heard About The World, a piece made in collaboration with Third Angel and Chris Thorpe.
Jorge starts up the engine and talks about the future. Amongst several other plans being made with Capela, Jorge has begun work on an opera about Utopia. He pulls out of Sobral and suggests that this opera will take the ideas of 3D even further and begins to explain what non-actors it might involve. However, after a day of rehearsals and political protests his actors have already succumbed to sleep. Jorge falls silent, eyes smiling. They will just have to wait and see what and who this tireless director will come up with next.
Ashley Scott-Layton is a writer, director and founder of Ravenrock. He recently finished as the resident assistant director at the Lyric Hammersmith and was the associate director on Morning by Simon Stephens. He is currently developing projects with Ravenrock as well hanging out with theatre companies across Europe. The account of these travels can be found on his blog, Chasing the Trickster.