The Glo-c-ality of Almada Festival

Savas Patsalidis*

Abstract

What is most remarkable about the Festival of Almada, is its success in maintaining an open relationship with the world community as well as a close connection to the local culture; everything starts from within and gradually expands to embrace the entire world. This year the festival celebrated its fortieth birthday with a rich program of domestic and foreign productions, including drama, dance, and New Circus, presented on nine stages.

Keywords: Almada, festival, community, theatre, New Circus, glo-c-al, Rodrigo Francisco, Martin Zimmermann, Peter Stein, Pinter  

Although widely used, there is no commonly accepted definition of the word festival, as its usage has come to encompass a variety of target groups, aims, and philosophies.  Indeed, contemporary festivals may have a religious or a more objective focus; some are more or exclusively market-oriented, e.g. a beer festival, while others are strictly artistic; some are devoted solely to experimental artwork, while others are more inclusive or thematic.  

In search of a common trait which links the various interpretations of festival as a concept, we suggest that each festival, in its own way, functions as both a place for community participation as well as a showcase for major concerns and achievements of the host city, community or country at large.

The poster of the 40th edition of Almada Festival. Photo: Courtesy of the Festival 

Focusing exclusively on theatre festivals, we could claim that no such festival can prosper today in isolation from the rest of the world and its concerns and achievements. This means that for a festival to endure and flourish, it must combine the anxieties, concerns and aspirations of the local citizens with the psychology and philosophy of the world community; that is to say, it should be conceptualized globally but enacted locally, i.e., a Glo©al Festival. 

What I find inviting about the Festival of Almada (Portugal), is precisely its relationship with both the world and the local communities; everything starts from within and gradually expands to embrace the world at large. One could note that festivals in Avignon or Edinburgh, for example, are based on similar operational principles, yet a large number of spectators who attend these festivals are also visitors from other cities and countries.  Organizers of these festivals seek a community or target group which is more international and less specifically defined, whereas in the case of the Almada Festival, visitors are of course present and most welcome, yet their presence does not alter the strong community character of the festival.  

The core and raison d’etre of the Almada festival is primarily the local society; the community supports and closely follows the festival, in all its phases. As Dana Rufolo comments in her review of the festival in Plays: International & Europe (2019), “Almada residents view the festival as their own. They identify intensely with their community” (34). The theatre venues are all filled primarily with people from the community and the wider region, mainly Lisbon, people whose professions are not necessarily related to theatre. They come from all walks of life. The same people will attend both an easily accessible comedy as well as a challenging Bob Wilson show, for example. The same people will show up at the outdoor buffet after or just before the shows start, listen and dance to the festival band, meet friends and make new acquaintances, and then return home until the next show. This local community celebrates and participates fully in the festive moments, and this audience is foremost in the mind of Almada-born artistic director Rodrigo Francisco as he selects performances for each new edition.  

The open-air dinner venue is adjacent to the Joaquim Benite Theatre. Photo: Patricia Martins. Courtesy of Almada Festival

Francisco does not compromise on quality. A festival should be “a space open to doubt,” he claims, one that is challenging and entertaining at the same time.  The theatre-loving audiences of Almada feel that what is being staged concerns them directly. That is why, at the end of the festival, these very same people are asked to vote for the best show which they would like to see again the following year. This audience, to the extent that the programming allows, becomes a formative part of the repertoire (Patsalidis, Interview). 

Apart from that, the positive attitude of the crowd toward all performances is impressive. Applause is not scarce, but rather thunderous and enduring. The audience sends its message of thanks, both to the actors who worked hard, and also to the artistic direction that brought them to the stage. One rarely hears any disparaging reactions; at the very worst, a somewhat tepid applause might be offered as a negative response. 

Local History

The character of contemporary theatre in Almada can be explained in large part through its connection to recent historical events. According to Francisco (Rufolo 40, Patsalidis), the local working-class community of the region was not involved with local theatre during the 1970s.  Those were the first years after the fall of the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in 1974, with the Carnation Revolution. As Francisco explains, Portuguese citizens lived through 36 years of a severe dictatorship and understood the reality of being subjected to torture and extreme disciplinary measures. They experienced the effects of propaganda through their bodies, quite literally, so the local festival formed shortly after avoided an overtly didactic approach with so-called political theatre in order to adopt a distinct sociopolitical character. After all, according to Francisco, theatre concerns the city, so it is therefore political by definition (Rufolo 40, Patsalidis). The more intensely someone attempts to politicize the theatre, the more intensely s/he subjects others to power imbalances, thus embracing that which should be opposed. With this philosophy in mind, one understands the artistic director’s efforts to adopt a more open form of language, one which does not exclude, an approach to language that takes risks, assimilates differences without difficulty and resists politicizing its vocabulary at all cost.

Francisco strongly believes in the inclusive power of texts, but also in the all-embracing magic of theatricality, which theatre fans enjoyed particularly in this most recent edition which included, among other interesting shows, three brilliant, breezy performances that focused on the New Circus, a trend that has developed an impressive momentum in recent years and is increasingly gaining the respect of both academics and critics.

Francisco first appeared in the local theatre scene in 1997, claiming that he was not well informed about theatre (Rufolo 40; also Patsalidis). He first worked as an assistant technician, and later became assistant director during the tenure of the festival’s founder, Joaquim Benite (for more see Patsalidis). Following the latter’s death in 2012, Francisco took over the directorship of the festival, and has succeeded in substantially increasing its foreign visitors without increasing the Festival’s distance from the community that supports it, a community that strongly makes its presence felt by filling halls of 500 and 600 seats. 

Municipal Theatre Joakim Benite (formerly known as The Teatro Municipal de Almada). Main Hall. Photo: Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite/Web

Visitors typically feel relaxed at this festival; they do not feel any particular pressure to compete with anyone, prove their status, or brandish their business cards with their professional credentials. Neither do they act like tourists while viewing a cultural site; rather, they are spectators who attend simply because they love the theatre and this festival in particular. Those who care about the festival have created an image of the theatre as a public feast integrated into everyday life. The artistic director himself has announced his goal of bringing even more people to the festival, to experience Almada and the entire spectrum of Portuguese theatre, and to enjoy the process deeply. “We want to invite the artists, the intellectuals, and the journalists,” he says. “For us it’s that we want to get to know other people; it is not a question of being known abroad” (Rufolo 40).

The crowd at the foyer of Teatro Joaquim Benite waiting for Yoann Bourgeois’ Minuit.  Photo: Luana Santos. Courtesy of Almada Theatre
Few Highlights in Brief

This year the festival celebrated its fortieth birthday with a rich and varied program of domestic and foreign productions in drama, dance, and New Circus, presented on nine stages. The program also included meetings and conversations with the artists, outdoor musical concerts before each performance, and a discussion on the subject of Artificial Intelligence and its impact on artistic creation, a highly interesting and useful intervention that will soon leave its mark on the theatre as well.  In this edition, the Festival also paid tribute to the actor and director, Joao Mota, founder of Comuna-Teatro de Pesquisa. 

Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, directed by Peter Stein. Escola D. Antonio da Costa’s Palco Grande. Photo: Tommaso de Pera
The Birthday Party

Two performances from this edition focused on the “theatre of the word.” One of these plays was the well-known The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter, his first full-length play, written in 1957 and first staged in 1958, directed by Peter Stein.

According to the Festival’s Leaflet, for six weeks Stein had assembled the cast of the Tieffe Teatro Milano group in a rural area, far from the temptations of Milan, intending to forge a sense of “artistic community capable of establishing a strong connection with the other community: the public” (2).  

Peter Stein joins the actors at the end of The Birthday Party. Escola D. Antonio da Costa’s Palco Grande. Photo: Patricia Martins. Courtesy of Almada Festival

The great German director may not have surprised us with any experimental or avant-garde choices, however, all the performative pieces were well and solidly placed creating a compact whole. His meticulous, fine-tuned directing and keen eye for detail found the right balance between comedy and inner emotional truth. He did justice to the threads of the threatening action and the famous, elusive and sometimes strange pauses and silences of Pinter, where horrible events can happen. 

The cast (Alessandro Averone [Stanley], Fernando Maraghini [Peter], Maddalena Crippa [Meg], Gianluigi Fogacci  [Goldberg],  Alessandro Sampaoli [McCann], Emilia Scatigno[Lulu]) enriched their dramatic roles with very subtle nuances, giving each their distinct stage presence. Special mention goes to the way Crippa, the director’s Italian wife, played Meg. She created a sensitive, intelligent, sufficiently erotic dramatic personae who made her presence felt every time she was on stage.

The major drawback of this production was the absence of sufficient surtitles. With a work like this, where words carry a special weight, where each word triggers a series of actions and reactions, subtitling (at least in English) is not an option but a necessity, especially for those who don’t know Italian or Portuguese and for those who do not know what the play is all about.  

Full house for Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Escola D. Antonio da Costa’s Palco Grande. Photo: Patricia Martins. Courtesy of Almada Festival
Life is a Dream

The other major figures of the Festival, Declan Donnellan and his stage designer Nick Ormerod, of the Cheek by Jowl team, returned to Portugal after almost ten years of absence, this time with a Spanish group, Compania Nacional de Teatro Clasico, and a Spanish verse play, Life is a Dream (1635), the most popular theatrical work of the Spanish Golden Age.

The crowd watching Life is a Dream. Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite (Sala Principal). Photo: Patricia Martins. Courtesy of Almada Festival 

Discussing the play, Donnellan observes in the Festival’s Leaflet: “A prince chained to a mountain. A young woman disguised as a man seeking revenge: revolution, love, murder. Is reality really real? Or is it all just a dream?” The classics endure, according to the director, “ because they deal with the ‘now’ – today as four hundred years ago. To do or to be? Calderon shows us that our greatest terror is not death, but existence itself” (2).

The result was an engaging show, intense and physical, a competent blend of a dream world and a world of comic absurdities, a combination of the unreal and the real, the unpredictable and the logical, a collage of feelings related to Segismundo’s confusion, further intensified by Ormerod’s intentionally unspecified set design.

MOMO

I was unable to attend Milo Rau’s Everywoman with the great Swiss actress Ursina Lardi, but I did manage to see MOMO (the acronym for Magic of Missing Out), choreographed by the world-famous Ohad Naharin with the Israeli Tel-Aviv-based group Batsheva Dance Company, a performance inspired by Lori Anderson’s and Kronos Quartet’s world-class album Landfall.  

History is hard to describe, simply because it does not have an entirely sequential storyline with a clear beginning, middle and end: this is the general structural idea upon which Naharin built his evocative choreographic concept, composed of fragments, the performative actions of two groups that try at all costs to win the attention of the viewer. The dominant feeling conveyed by their movements was a pervasive melancholy and despair surrounding the defeat of human beings that recurs as a basic motif, along with scattered moments of joy. 

I liked the show. I found it to be evocative, moving, original and beautifully orchestrated. As a concluding remark, I quote the following comment from The Jerusalem Post, which is both succinct and informative: “…this new creation is difficult to describe, and this is perhaps the mark of masterpieces: they are impossible to describe and, therefore, must be seen” (Leaflet 3). 

An ensemble scene from MOMO. Centro Cultural de Belem (Grande Auditorio). Photo: Ascaf. Courtesy of Almada Festival
New Circus: Real Magic

Among the top moments of this year’s festival were the three performances that one could easily and justifiably include in the New – or contemporary, according to others – Circus, the trend that brings under the same expressive roof a variety of performing codes, an exciting and inclusive hybrid of the postmodern which gives space not only to the living bodies but also to objects, and as such requires a corresponding evolution in the way actors are trained and directed. Stanislavski and Strasberg are not enough; the stage form and training philosophy of this genre far exceed their teachings. 

The three actors starring in Ein Zwei Drei (Tarek Halaby, Dimitri Jourde, and Romeu Runa) test the very limits of the performing bodies. Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite (Sala Principal).  Photo: Augustin Rebetez. Courtesy of Almada Festival
Ein Zwei Drei

Ein Zwei Drei, which premiered in Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, 2018, is an explosive wordless performance with the signature of the talented performer and choreographer Martin Zimmermann.  Indeed, no matter how many times one sees this production, one never gets enough; there is always something more to admire, something grotesque, clownish, surreal. In such unique moments, when the very limits of the performing bodies are tested, the theatre turns from an art of imitation into a performative space of literal magic.  

In Ein Zwei Drei the viewers are transferred to a completely different universe; all they need to do is let themselves be carried away by the shock wave of the events, their daemonic and merciless energy, and become fellow travelers in a zany, absurd, unpredictable and humorous museum environment, where everything familiar is turned upside down and becomes something else, with the live musical accompaniment of pianist Colen Vallon.  

It is amazing how three charismatic clowns as well as virtuoso performers, Tarek Halaby, Dimitri Jourde, and Romeu Runa, appear out of nowhere, and in collaboration with inanimate yet active objects, test the limits of human imagination. They perform on razor’s edge in an all-embracing artwork full of tragic and comic moments. The viewer is never sure whether they will make it or not in the dizzying and puzzling world depicted on stage. Zimmerman’s comments are quite revealing:

I have always been interested in understanding where the figure of the clown belongs in contemporary theatre. A clown is not an actor. He is completely present both inwardly and outwardly and serves as a mirror to ourselves and our existence. You can go through life by saying yes or no or you probe by asking questions. Clowns do both and doing both means power! How will these three figures plucked from the anarchic world of circus survive in this strictly ordered environment of a museum? What evolves is highly comic, absurd and tragic. The more controlled the environment, the more comic and monstrous everything becomes.  

The performance Zimmermann put together provides answers which are highly imaginative, entertaining and engaging.

People lining up for Optraken. Escola D. Antonio da Costa’s Palco Grande. Photo: Patricia Martins. Courtesy of Almada Festival
Optraken

The next New Circus show, Optraken, by the Galactik Ensemble, originally staged in 2017, also represents visual theatre at its best. The title, which means “ready to face danger,” draws from the colloquial speech of skiers. Five extraordinary actors/acrobats, founding members of the company, perform tirelessly for 60 minutes in what they call “situational acrobatics.”

The production foregrounds the relationship of their bodies to a complex environment, as the surroundings are hostile, with moving panels, collapsing ceilings, shifting walls, exploding firecrackers, sandbags dropping from flies and tennis balls being thrown into the audience. The artists perform both as individuals and as an ensemble within a rugged setting which is constantly moving; it is a space in which new challenge is constantly shifting and therefore cannot ever be properly faced, a stage world out of tune, a world in which every single moment matters for their survival, and perhaps that of the spectators as well. They must always be on guard, with no time to relax or let go. They must constantly position and reposition themselves to avoid threatening objects and menacing situations; they must adjust and readjust on the spur of the moment in order to stay alive.

Mathieu Bleton, Mosi Espinoza, Jonas Julliand, Karim Messaoudi, Cyril Pernot, all graduates of the renowned circus school at Rosny sous Bois, perform the dangers and challenges of unpredictability with perfect delivery. Their acts, timing, reflexes and pacing are a hymn to human imagination, talent and ingenuity.  

A scene from the dizzying world of Optraken. Escola D. Antonio da Costa’s Palco Grande. Photo: N. Martinez. Courtesy of Almada Festival
Minuit

Yoann Bourgeois, the French acrobat, dancer,  the “slapstick comedian,” as the New Yorker magazine called him, or the “dramatist of physics,” according to the New York Times, an artist who moves comfortably between various artistic codes, brought to Almada the performance Minuit, which he first staged in 2014 and since then has been traveling around the world showing how anything is possible if we convince ourselves and our eyes that it is possible.

It is certainly not easy to keep one’s balance and perform when one is in the midst of forces that threaten to overthrow the body. It’s not easy to mess with gravity. And yet, in a series of impressive vignettes, the three talented performers (Marie Bourgeois, Olivier Mathieu and Yoann Bourgeois) make a real demonstration of their acrobatic skills. 

The title is indicative: Midnight. The time when one day is gone and  a new day is about to begin. Time on the razor’s edge. A moment that belongs neither to the previous nor to the next moment. It is a moment that hovers. A kind of No Man’s Land, a third space, a neutral zone or buffer zone where everything is fluid and undefined, even existence itself, where anything is possible, just like the performances of the three artists. Where do they belong?

The critics may have classified them as New Circus, but in fact, they comfortably coexist with many diverse expressive spaces. Their art is hybrid, peculiarly meteoric, an art that performs at a “suspension point,” as Bourgeois explains on the blog of BAM in New York where he had made his first appearance with this show in America: 

For a juggler, the suspension point is that brief moment when an object thrown in the air arrives at the summit of its arc before it falls. That’s what I’m looking for: the absolute present of that moment. It’s the ideal place — the peak before the fall, that moment of weightlessness, the moment when everything is possible

in Meier
A scene from Minuit. Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite (Sala Principal). Photo: Geraldine Aresteanu. Courtesy of Almada Festival

Concluding remark: The directors and performers of all three New Circus pieces delivered the kind of production any artist would dream about. Surprise after surprise they breathlessly overturned expectations, creating a world of their own, a special one that may not have the deep substance that one expects, but it has all the art of the theatre embroidered on it.

Portuguese Premieres

The festival featured two Portuguese premieres. I was not able to attend Ventos do Apocalipse,directed by Noe Joao from Angola, based on the work of Paulina Chiziane from Mozambique, the first woman in the country to publish a novel (1990) on the subject of polygamy, but I attended Rodrigo Francisco’s Calvario, his fifth play, based on a rehearsal of Thomas Bernhard’s well-known play Minetti.  It was a delightful, breezy and well-paced parody, carefully and modestly directed by the author himself. The minimal, seamless set design helped maintain the well-paced staging of the show. The enjoyment of the performance would have been more complete had there been subtitles.  

Rodrigo Francisco’s Calvario. Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite (Sala Experimental).  Photo: Patricia Mateus. Courtesy of Almada Festival
Arabic Entries

Due to problems with scheduling, I regretfully missed two additional performances, both with Arabic roots and Greek thematics.  The first of these plays, Jogging, directed by the 65-year-old Lebanese Hanane Hajj Ali, is a so-called bastard text (Leaflet 6), according to its creator, as she was not allowed to present this work in theatres in her homeland.

The theme focuses on women who have killed their children, a clear reference to Medea, the mythical figure who had haunted the director since 2012, according to her note in the Festival’s Leaflet (6). It was difficult, if not impossible, for her to understand how a woman could kill her children until the day her youngest son was diagnosed with cancer. One night, while her son was being hospitalized, she dreamt that she was strangling him in his sleep to save him. She woke up startled; at that moment, the dark Medea performance was born. 

The second play, Ulysses of Taourirt, by the French-Algerian Abdelwaheb Sefsaf, currently the artistic director at the Theatre de Sartouville, narrates the story of the director’s parents, who contributed to the rebuilding of both France and parts of Portugal after the Second World War.  While depicting the experience of the director’s parents, the play also mirrors analogous stories of many other families.

A Contemporary Aristophanes

Que salga Aristophanes (ontsere), performed by the Catalan company Els Joglars –an independent theatre group with a history that spans the past 60 years–, adapted the work of Aristophanes with the aim of forming a shield against the sweeping principles of the cancel culture movement, which originated in America and subsequently spread to Europe, where it is now dominant.  At a key moment in the narrative, the Mayflower ship, which in 1620 transported the first Puritans to America in the area now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts, returns to the stage and Europe, thus satirizing the neo-puritanism currently taking root in Europe. As the group itself says, “We have based our journey on the art of Aristophanes. Twenty-five centuries later, the author is still a symbol of freedom. With this performance, we claim the freedom of art against the threats of an ultra-protective society” (Leaflet 6).

Que salga Aristophanes! Escola D. Antonio da Costa’s Palco Grande. Photo: Els Joglars. Courtesy of Almada Festival

Bibliography

Leaflet. 40th Festival de Almada. 4-18 July, 2023.

Meier, Allison. “An Acrobat Embodies the Weightless Beauty Before a Fall.” Hyperallergic, October 10, 2016. Accessed 8 December 2023.

Patsalidis, Savas. “’Many Festivals are Mostly a Brand’: Interview with Rodrigo Francisco.” Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, no 17, 2018, n.p.

Rufolo, Dana. “Dana Rufolo in Portugal at the Festival of Almada.” Plays International & Europe, vol. 34, no 7-9, Autumn 2019, pp. 34-39

————. “Rodrigo Francisco, Artistic Director of the Festival of Almada. Interview.”  Plays International & Europe, vol. 34, no 7-9, Autumn 2019, pp. 39-40.

Zimmermann, Martin. Eins Zwei Drei. Temal Productions. Accessed 8 December 2023. 


*Savas Patsalidis is a Professor Emeritus in Theatre Studies at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where he has taught at the School of English for close to 35 years. He has also taught at the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece, the Hellenic Open University and the graduate program of the Theatre Department of Aristotle University. He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. In 2019 his book Theatre & Theory II: About Topoi, Utopias and Heterotopias was published by University Studio Press. In 2022 his book-length study Comedy’s Encomium: The Seriousness of Laughter, was also published by University Studio Press. In addition to his academic activities, he writes theatre reviews for various journals. He is on the Executive Committee of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, a member of the curators’ team of Forest International Festival (organized by the National Theatre of Northern Greece), and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

Copyright © 2023 Savas Patsalidis
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

Creative Commons Attribution International License

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email