God’s Garden @ Linbury Studio, ROH, London

directed by
Arthur Pita
God’s Garden is “a place, a state of being. A balance of life and death and all in-betweenwhere love, joy, guilt and punishment play together.”

Based on the parable of the The Prodigal Son, Arthur Pita’s dance piece concerns a son, played by Nuno Silva, who runs away from his impending wedding, leaving behind his heartbroken bride, father, grandmother and sister, as he drinks, snorts and humps his way around town.

Stripped down to a metaphor-heavy pair of pink underpants, he returns to his family exhausted and covered in mud. He is forgiven by his father, and his sins (literally) washed away.
The family slaughter a pig in preparation for a feast, and the characters sing, dance and drink their way into oblivion. Waiting in the wings is the jilted bride, who having first burst onto the stage as a delightful ball of energy in white tulle, now lurks dangerously behind the family.

Director and choreographer Arthur Pita has reinterpreted the parable as a revenge story, and has based the characters partly on his own family, and of memories from trips to Madeira. The set of a pretty tiled courtyard designed by Jean-Marc Puissant is the backdrop to the piece, and Fado, a traditional Portuguese music genre, is sung throughout, accompanied by musician Phil King.

These themes of death and danger are mixed with a sense of earthiness, humour and affection. For instance, at one point all four characters walk out into the audience singing, bringing with them liquor glasses, and showing the audience unexpectedly rude toys, such as a jack-in-the-box replaced by a plastic penis. Diana Payne-Myers, as the grandmother, lightly skips, hops and twirls across the stage with only a cane for a prop, like a particularly charming sparrow.

Cutting through the cartoonishness is an undercurrent of erotic energy, like flickers of lightning before a storm. The audience certainly get an eyeful of Nuno Silvas powerful body as he is bathed by sister and grandmother. Playing his sister, Lorena Randi has an earthy and sexually charged solo on a table top, her bare feet arching as she tosses her hair in the wind. In the sweaty finale, the bride (Valentina Golfieri) exacts her revenge in a way that had the audience half frightened and half turned on.

The final scene is of Golfieris triumphant dance over Silvas body, and she stamps more and more frenziedly to a rising drumbeat, watched over coolly by his sister, who appears to collude in the cover up of the murder. Where the blind father relies on his female helpers, and where women are the ones to measure out graves as well as bring new life into the world, perhaps this is a warning of what happens when they are betrayed. Golfieri explores her role with increasing darkness, which is delicious considering her earlier wide-eyed exuberance as the bride-to-be. The portrayal of the arrogant son is perhaps a little one dimensional, but Silva sings with soul and aplomb.

In 75 minutes, you feel Pitas obvious desire to show you his roots, and his affection for the people of Madeira, in particular the female members of his family. However, bringing together theatre, dance and fado meant that a lot was crammed in to a comparatively short space of time. A few trims might have helped. Payne-Myers had one too many feints at dying, and the constant interruption of the singing became a little exasperating. While having the singers go out into the audience was fun, it was also puzzling.

The energy level of the cast couldn’t be faulted and their obvious fun and delight was infectious. With charming performances by the cast and superb music by Silva and King, Gods Garden is a flawed piece, certainly, but one that was lively, raucous and lot of fun.

God’s Garden will be at the Corn Exchange, Brighton, on 15 and 16 February 2010.

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