In Blood: The Bacchae @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast list
Greg Hicks, Leo Kay, Luiz ‘Toca’ Feliciano, Daon Broni, Miguel Andrade Santos, David Gant, Jorge Goia

directed by
Noah Birksted-Breen
Set in 1920s Brazil and inspired by Euripedes’ The Bacchae, In Blood is a new play by Francis Viner that fuses high drama with traditional Brazilian music and dancing.

It thus tells of the crisis that faced Brazil in the early twentieth century using tools that are integral to the country’s culture

By the 1920s, slavery had already been abolished in Brazil, but freedom and equality were still mere dreams for most people as the society remained rigidly hierarchical, and the ruling elite aimed to create a ‘modern, European’ Brazil.

In Blood is the story of how the real life figure, Besouro, stood up to the government in order to re-assert traditional Brazilian values, by using wit rather than violence.

Towards the start, Besouro (Daon Broni) explains that his mother was shot by a policeman, but that he has no desire to avenge the death by acquiring a gun. To do so would simply be the first step towards using the weapon at the earliest opportunity, which would simply fuel the hatred and the status quo. He is more interested in living, and sets about trying to build a better society.

The man who shot his mother is actually the chief of police, Gordilho (Gregg Hicks), whom is broadly the villain of the piece, but clearly in a difficult position himself. This is made clear through a highly emotive conversation between he and the former chief of police, Cova (David Gant).

Cova governed at a time when Brazilian society was more conservative and the police did as they pleased – oppressing the masses and freely using brothels – without fear of repercussions or social instability. He recognises that things have now changed and advises Gordilho to alter his actions accordingly, but does this from the luxurious position of wealthy, carefree retirement.

Gordilho, in contrast, is faced with maintaining control under more difficult circumstances, and sees it as his duty to modernise Brazil along western lines. He is certainly no saint because protecting his own position remains his primary concern, and he declares that he would like enjoy to ‘black tit’ whenever he pleases. Nevertheless, a superb performance from Greg Hicks, and the remorse he shows following the killing of Besouro’s mother, help us to appreciate him as a deeply complex and frustrated character.

It is Gordilho’s own uncertainties about his ‘mission’ that lead him not to kill the ‘trouble-maker’, Besouro, when he has the chance, but instead to engage in a game of capoeira. This traditional Brazilian game is an art form with spiritual dimensions that sees the players twist and dance around each other as they try to avoid each other’s attacks. It therefore captures perfectly Besouro’s approach to outwitting, rather than physically hurting, his opponents, and it is notable that Gordilho fails when he rises to the other person’s attack, rather than simply dodging it.

In this way, the play makes dance and music integral to the story. It begins and ends with lengthy musical pieces that are played on traditional instruments such as the berimbau, and overall it illustrates the power of music. When a thief steals from Besouro, it is nothing more than musicians clutching their instruments that hold him back, whilst Gordilho’s failure to appreciate music’s significance means he can only produce a dead twang when he strikes Besouro’s berimbau.

If, however, In Blood emulates The Bacchae by depicting cultural clashes, and revealing the spiritual power of music and movement, too often the straight drama and the musical elements feel as if they stand as separate entities, failing to fuse as much as they should. Indeed, from what we see of the interaction between Besouro and Gordilho, it lacks credulity that he would ever choose to engage in capoeira. At the very least we are forced to recall reported incidents that would explain his decision to do so, rather than appreciate the persuasive powers of Besouro for ourselves.

It is also unfortunate that, being based on a true story, the plot does not possess the neat ending that a piece of fiction could have been handed. At the end Besouro is shot dead by a policeman who is far more reactionary than Gordilho (who is by now dead) ever was. It thus undermines (though far from destroys) the story of how one man helped to develop Brazil along more liberal lines.

Nevertheless, though In Blood may fail to thrill, either dramatically or visually, to the extent that was clearly intended, it is still an emotive piece that offers many insights into both Brazilian culture and the ways in which the human spirit can triumph over adversity.

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