Exploring fear, obsession, death, and the hypocrisy inherent in society’s values, Nelson Rodrigues’ All Nudity Shall Be Punished is a complex and frequently powerful study of human nature, which attacks religious fundamentalism as much as it does uninhibited sexual freedom.
Set in Brazil (where Rodrigues lived) it tells of the trials and tribulations of a family, in which the wife has died of breast cancer, through several superbly drawn out characters. The widower, Herculano (Natan Barreto), goes into a deep mourning which derives from his own sexual inexperience, itself a result of his strict religious upbringing. The two aunts, who sit either side of his wife’s bed like angels guarding Jesus’ empty tomb, similarly think it is good for the son to spend his days at his mother’s grave, declaring that impotence is the most godly state.
However, when Herculano’s brother, Patricio (Patrick Ross), decides to set him up with the prostitute, Geni, to cheer him up, he sets in motion a chain of events that bring out the best and the worst in everyone. Though in some ways demonstrating kindness, and ultimately marrying her, Herculano also plays critically with Geni’s emotions all along the way. In addition, the son (Serginho, played by Tyrone James), unable to bear another woman in his father’s life, plays a cruel game, sleeping with Geni once she is married, and then deserting her entirely to go abroad.
Najjla Kay as Geni steals the show with her sensitive portrayal of the vulnerable prostitute, longing to be accepted and loved by someone, but similarly (with good reason) being reluctant to show any trust. With her own mother also dying of breast cancer, Geni also has an obsessive fear of meeting the same fate, fuelled by her belief that her breasts are her best feature.
The set consisting of a few simple props in the warehouse style Union Theatre is atmospheric, sucking the audience, who sit either side of the action, into the proceedings. Good use is also made of freezing scenes suddenly, whilst Brazilian music simultaneously starts up, to highlight key moments in the drama.
The central message of Rodrigues’ play seems to be that adherence to one form of extremism can prompt the pursuit of another. For example, the religious fundamentalism practised by the family members makes them ill equipped to face the challenges of every day life, so that when they do their hedonism becomes uncontrollable. Universalising the point with the message ‘To be human is to be crazy. Nobody sees that, because only prophets can see the obvious’, the play becomes surprisingly easy to relate to, even if one has never faced the precise situations described.
Rodrigues also suggests that human imbalances propel themselves, for the story does not finish where the drama ends. At this point, Geni is still alive, but we know that she subsequently commits suicide because at the start of the play her dead form appears to Serginho, so that he is now haunted by her as he used to be by his dead mother.
The one shortcoming in Rodrigues’ writing is that there is no suggestion of how to strive for moderation. In this respect, his argument does not seem to stretch beyond saying that the way to be happy is not to live your life like this. In addition, though the characterisation is frequently convincing, it is hard to grasp Patricio’s motivations. Supposedly existing to expose society’s rotten moral codes, some of his acts simply defy belief. His first action to fix up Herculano with Geni could derive from a simple desire to see his brother lightening up, but others are so cruel that, notwithstanding a few occasions here he benefits financially through blackmail, there seems to be no incentive or reason for him to behave as he does.
Nevertheless, for a poignant and superbly paced piece of drama, in a setting so intimate that the audience is truly able to feel every cry of despair, All Nudity Shall Be Punished surely takes some beating.