Katerina Delikonstantinidou*

35th Festival of Almada, Almada and Lisbon, Portugal, 4-18 July, 2018

The official poster of the festival’s 35th edition
The artistic director of the Festival de Almada, Rodrigo Francisco

Almada is said to be the national theatre capital of Portugal, at least for the duration of its theatre festival. This is the first piece of information I received upon arriving at the small, yet remarkably vibrant, city, snuggling between Tagus River and the Atlantic Ocean and greeting Lisbon’s majestic bearing across the 25 de Abril Bridge with low-key dignity.

The second thing I learned about Portugal’s theatre and performing arts hub is that the Festival of Almada is primarily, consistently, and quite explicitly oriented toward the public. The festival’s success can be traced to the fact that, in the 35 years of its existence, it has grown to become part of civic as well as poetic engagement with the society through whose fabric it steadfastly weaves itself, always in keeping with the decidedly democratizing vision and mission of the late Joaquim Benite, the festival’s first artistic director (also director of Companhia de Teatro de Almada).

The festival’s current artistic director, Rodrigo Fransisco, recently interviewed in Critical Stages by Savas Patsalidis, did an amazing job with the program of the latest edition, which features four premieres and a variety of artistic events, such as concerts, exhibitions, and street shows, accompanying more than twenty theatre spectacles making up the festival’s backbone.

Christian Martins and Rafael Fonseca in Colónia Penal. Teatro do Bairro, Lisbon, Portugal, 2018. Photo: Maria Antunes

To offer an illustrative sample of the festival’s 35th edition, I begin with Colónia Penal, a playwhich handles with sensitivity—thematically and dramaturgically—the material it reconfigures; namely, Jean Genet’s Le Bagne, or Penal Colony (developed between 1949 and 1964, and drawing from his own experience as a prisoner).

João Barbosa, Luís Lima Barreto and Hugo Mestre Amaro in Colónia Penal, Teatro do Bairro, Lisbon, Portugal, 2018.
Photo: Maria Antunes

The piece’s director, António Pires, translators Fátima Ferreira and Luís Lima Barreto, and, of course, Colónia Penal’s ensemble of actors, have elicited from the unfinished and fragmented text of Genet a peculiar kind of poetry, dark and resonant in its affirmation of human existence via negativa; that is, by celebrating death as the proverbial grand equalizer. The play infuses profound meaning to the idea of crime as a means of transcending mundane and trivial human life, as well as to the idea of prison as a sort of waiting room before gaining admission to liberating, idealized death. Imprisonment, exile , isolation, violence, oppression, all the suffering and hopelessness, all the conflicts and contradictions entailed therein, are but ancillaries to the great and necessary journey toward this sacred destination.

João Maria in Colónia Penal. Teatro do Bairro, Lisbon, Portugal, 2018. Photo: Maria Antunes

The way Pires has re-arranged the “framed pictures” bequeathed by Genet’s decidedly inconclusive and non-narrative text, creating a modular choreography of tableaus, allows for the gradual and suspenseful revelation of the text’s philosophical nuances, but also captures something of the dadaist spirit infusing Genet’s work. The effect of the piece’s structure is heightened by the way Rui Seabra has immersed and transversed these tableaus in and by zones of desert-like light and tomb-like shadow, thus further foregrounding the desolation of the limbo-like prison state in which the characters find themselves, as well as the promise that death makes to them, one always tainted with uncertainly. The toned-down yet powerful performances and the cinematographic elements which the play’s staging ingeniously integrates, and which pay tribute to Genet’s reworking of his piece for the big screen in the early 1950s, round out the piece very effectively.

Several humorous instances interspersed throughout Dr. Nest blend harmoniously with an acute feeling of sadness permeating the play. Escola D. António Da Costa, Palco Grande, Almada, 2018. Photo: Valeria Tomasulo

The German Dr. Nest, the latest achievement of Familie Flöz, won the hearts of the festival’s audience and thus scooped up the festival’s 2018 Audience Award. The ensemble is known for their unique pieces, their brilliant experimentations with masks—at once bizarre and beautiful—and the way they manage to bring to life captivating stories without verbal communication or grandiose scenery, but by braiding together tragic and comedic strands by means of their own physical presence.

In Dr. Nest, the titular “Doctor” becomes the patient. Escola D. António Da Costa, Palco Grande, Almada, 2018.
Photo: Valeria Tomasulo

In Dr. Nest, they set out to tell the story of a mysterious man who arrives at a secluded sanatorium and takes a position among the establishment’s staff of care workers as Dr. Nest. Apparently motivated by genuine care, scientific curiosity and desire for insights into the workings of the human psyche, Dr. Nest helps the residents cope with the enigmas of the mind and the soul. Soon, however, his touching empathy towards his “patients” shows to have its source not in his personal and professional ethics, but in his intimate knowledge of the obsessive desires, distorted/ing memories and haunting fantasies plaguing them. Unable to keep his own compulsions, delusions and demons at bay, he finds solace in the company of the lonely, the alienated, the persecuted—those like him. In the short duration of his appointment, however, he does lend comfort and joy to the lives of others, while, at the same time, his adventures testify to how rewarding life can be not despite of but in its very fragility.

The play’s captivating depiction of the solitude of the human mind won over the festival’s audience. Escola D. António Da Costa, Palco Grande, Almada, 2018. Photo: Valeria Tomasulo
Video 1

The official trailer of Dr. Nest by the German-based theatre company Familie Flöz

The nuanced performances of the five actors (Fabian Baumgarten, Anna Kistel, BjörnLeese, Benjamin Reber, Mats Suethoff), whose adept use of masks and gestural vocabulary speaks to their overflowing talent, matches the intricate musical backcloth of the performance, the clever use of the onstage space, as well as the skillful way in which the piece establishes and maintains contact with the audience throughout. The performers seek to smooth our way into the world of the stage; a world that casts doubt on the border separating sanity and insanity, even before the spectators have been settled on the stands of Palco Grande. They do this by donning selected traits of some of the characters they will come to embody in the performance, before donning these same characters’ actual representative masks (by Hajo Schüler), each alluding to a specific case report drawn from the fields of psychiatry and neurology, and by interacting with audience members through those very traits. The connection that the performers thus forge with the audience is preserved by frequent instances of non-verbal address on the part of the former toward the latter in the course of the play.

The performers of Federico García on the stage of Escola D. António Da Costa, Palco Grande, Almada, 2018. Photo: Justin P. Brown

The festival drew down the curtain on its 35th edition by means of an instance of musical theatre seeped through by elements of documentary theatre: a tribute to the life of Federico García Lorca (1898-1936). Only, contrary to several works that have over the years attempted to allow us glimpses at, or panoramas of, the life and work of the world-famous Andalusian artist, this piece seeks to make for an inside view of Federico García (as the piece intimates via its very title, Federico García), the human presence, rather than Lorca, the iconic figure of Spanish Modernism. It was, after all, the artist’s powerfully expressive human presence that made him phenomenal. And it would be impossible to capture his multifaceted presence, and the charisma with which each facet was endowed, without blending elements gleaned from a variety of them in a polyhedric unit.

José Maldonado dances his way into the human presence of Federico García Escola D. António Da Costa, Palco Grande, Almada, 2018.
Photo: Justin P. Brown

Hence, Pep Tosar’s sonorous (albeit a tad too emotional) rendering of Federico García’s words summoned forth from his texts; the train journey that is projected on screen and that takes us through some of the most important “stops” marking his life journey and through the accounts of several witnesses of the said journey; and the breathtaking vocals of Mariola Membrives, equally skilled in flamenco and in jazz tunes, accompanied by guitarist Marc López and percussionist David Domínguez, compose a thoroughly satisfying aural and visual biography of the human that was Federico García. Yet, it is José Maldonado’s spectacular choreography and flamenco dance that ties all the components of this piece together. The sensational sound of his zapatos does more than furnish the soundscape of the entire work; in the complete silence of the hall of Palco Grande, it seems to be spinning corporeal substance out of the living memory that is Federico García.

Video 2

The trailer of Federico García by Pep Tosar

I departed Palco Grande, and with it the Festival of Almada, thinking that, if Lorca, his life and work, amount to a confrontation with the still unhealed wounds of the Spanish Civil War, as the festival’s organizers have suggested, he was aptly chosen to function as signature and statement of this year’s edition, which overtly confronts legacies of conflict as they jut out of the unfolding crisis and manifest in last-minute budget cuts and related counter-productive measures.

And if Lorca’s work, especially his work for the theatre, serves the foregoing purpose insofar as it derives from an ongoing process of negotiation on the part of the artist with his historical audience, as Christopher Soufas has suggested (1996), Festival de Almada serves its respective purpose by holding onto its structuring notion and guiding principle: stay in touch with the public, while it operates as an inter- and trans-cultural/national platform for art-making and for encounters over and across the performing arts.

*Katerina Delikonstantinidou holds a PhD in Theatre Studies from the School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her articles have been published in numerous volumes and journals, her research work has been presented at national and international conferences, and she is the recipient of several grants and scholarships. She has been a member of the web team for Critical Stages since 2014. Her research areas include Theatre and Performing Arts, Greek Tragedy, Ethnic Studies, Digital Literacies and Education.

Copyright © 2018 Katerina Delikonstantinidou
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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Almada’s Theatre Fiesta: A Public Affair or an Affair with the Public