Interviewed by Rita Martins;
translation by Francesca Rayner
José Maria Vieira Mendes was born in Lisbon in 1976. He began his career as a dramatist in 1998 with the Artistas Unidos (United Artists), a prestigious theatre company directed by distinguished director and playwright Jorge Silva Melo. He participated in the International Residency at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2000 and in 2005, he received a grant from the Calouste Gulbunkian Foundation to go to Berlin. He is the author of The Ground (2001) T1 (2003), Concrete Proposal (2005), My Wife (2007), Two Pages(2007), Interval (2008) and Where Will We Live? (2008). Inspired by other works and authors, he wrote Crime and Punishment (1999, based on the novel by Dostoevsky), Two Men (1999, based on Kafka), Die (2000, based on Sterben by Arthur Schnitzler), There at the End of the River (2000, based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment), If the World Were Not Like This (2004, based on motifs by Damon Runyon), The Miser or the Last Party (based on Molière’s L´Avare), To the Fish (2008, based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick). He has translated Beckett, Duncan McLean, Fosse, Pinter and Müller and some of his plays have been translated into English, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Norwegian, Slovak, Swedish and German, with productions in Germany, Sweden and Scotland. Since 2008, he has been a member of the Teatro Praga (Theatre of the Plague) theatre company.
1. In your country / city, is there some major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Censorship or a blind spot of a community’s shared perception of the world? A community consciously or subconsciously turning a blind eye?
I suppose that the question presupposes that creative artists should put the contemporary problems of their country onstage. This is not an idea that immediately attracts me. Creative artists should think onstage. They should make the spectator think along with them. That’s all. National, international, universal or non-existent problems.
In fact, what interests me more is to produce problems, to invent them. Ideally show what has never been seen (yes, there are blind spots). I’m often led to a refusal of the Real. An absolute refusal of the world of facts and opinions. certainties and answers. I believe in the political relevance of art, but not in political art. Being oppositional. Saying No.
Vehemently putting forward the impossible, affirming in turn both truths and untruths.
What is lacking in Portuguese creative artists is not the staging of the problems of the country. Other things are lacking. Like thought, for instance. And community as well. Thought. As ever.
2. What if anything is difficult in communicating with the director? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you directed yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?
I’m not currently working with a director. I work with a collective [Teatro Praga]. We work together to create the performance. Every single day. Every day of our lives. Paradigms, boundaries and methods are not fixed in stone. We use what works best. Sometimes I write, sometimes I read, and on other occasions, I even speak. That’s because I’ve found people I’ve wanted to work with and who share a theatre that is also mine. With no hierarchies and no answers.
Working with directors (which has already happened and may well happen again) doesn’t interest me a great deal. If the aim is to direct one of my texts, let them direct it and dialogue with the text itself. As far as I’m concerned, it would be only out of curiosity or if they want to create a performance with me (and it isn’t possible to create a performance with just anyone, in fact, it’s only possible with a very small number of people, you need to be lucky).
3. In your creative process, which bit do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
I don’t have an answer for this question. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m sorry….
4. During your career, have you received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When was that? Do you remember it well enough to quote it? What was so important in it?
Unfortunately, no. I have a difficult relationship with the critics because I often (if not always) feel that they speak a language that isn’t mine. Therefore, I don’t understand it. Most theatre critics read the performance according to theoretical and logical principles which are not mine. For example, having somebody watch a performance in which I have collaborated as a creative artist dedicate a paragraph to the “text” or the “dramaturgy” and then analyse the work of the director and finally the work of the actors, is a form of “reading” which is not compatible with my (our) way of “writing”.
Osório Mateus once wrote: “Ideology conceives of the text as the locus of meaning or of creating meanings and judges it to be dominant in any artistic practice in which it appears”. I take part in performances which do not follow this ideology. We don’t believe in “actors”, “characters” or the “director”. And that demands that the critic watch with different eyes, develop another way of seeing. And has space to write his review and time to think. Something they rarely have.