Knock Against My Heart @ Birmingham Rep, Birmingham

directed by
Michael Judge
Known for their vibrant performances the Brazilian theatre company, Nos do Morro have been recruiting young actors from poverty stricken areas of South America for the last twenty years.

Now performing in collaboration with English director Michael Judge the two are targeting UK youth with their postcolonial take on Shakespeare’s magical play, The Tempest. Set in the slums of contemporary Rio de Janeiro the plot here is entirely original and owes a sight more to the Brazilian gangster film City of God than Elizabethan drama, with its gun toting Prospero and his swindling brother Antonio amongst its roster.

Driven from his hometown, Prospero is a failed entrepreneur looking for land and a way of getting rich quick, finding it the form of the indigenous people of Rio and their water supply he begins to build on the land. He and his daughter, the beautiful Miranda, live amongst the natives who are governed by their leader, Caliban on the other side of the city where Prospero wishes to build his new irrigation system to steal the native’s resources. The problem appears when Miranda falls for the rough native whom her father sees as a rival to the lands ownership, and as the tempestuous relationships flare up tragedy strikes.

Writer Oladipo Agboluaje’s vision for the company, known as ‘we of the hills’ in Brazil, is certainly not a traditional look at Shakespeare’s final dally on the stage, but one brave enough to question its audience’s surroundings. The image of the tribal Caliban gunned down by a wrathful Prospero, dressed head to toe in the garb of a Western frontiersman, exposes a few truths about our own profit focused society, as well as that of Rio.

Agbouluaje’s script is high on action with its pacey fight scenes and physical drama, but in its exuberance it exposes a few problems born out of the lively drama workshop style that the play depends on. With only one in their number a native English speaker it is not heavy on English dialogue, which can confusing at times for those who do not know the basic story. The stories erratic focus is covered up however by more traditional theatre methods, and both song and dance are utilised to great effect in telling the tale. These disciplines allow Miriana Whitehouse to flex her vocal pipes as the caged bird Miranda, and William De Paula to incorporate local Favela music into the sixty minute long production.

These local traditions take shape in part of the Brazilian martial art Capoeira, which allows De Paula a chance to demonstrate his athleticism as he flips and somersaults his way around the stage to the delight of audience members inches away from him. Opening the play with a water ceremony he is every inch the beast of The Bard’s original, speaking almost exclusively in Portuguese he gives the piece credibility when faced with a barrage of English from Andre Santinho’s overbearing oppressor Prospero.

Reverting to simple methods of symbolism, Roma Patel’s imaginative stage encompasses a clay structure suggesting Caliban’s mountain, complete with ghetto at its base and a wooden porch for Prospero’s house. The piece relies heavily on imagination to tell the story and as it is aimed at young theatregoers is very effective. One interesting moment sees the infatuated Miranda dance around the stage trying to fend off Caliban’s advances, only for him to catch her in his arms and replace the white rose in her hair with a crimson flower. These symbolic touches fit in with the magical tone of the original and allow the players to have fun with the story, a style that is certainly infectious.

Representing the cold face of capitalism Santinho’s Prospero is a ball of rage, attempting to control every aspect of his world, including his conniving brother Antonio (Dani Machancoses), and it is this idea that the group have most success with when drawing on both Brazil and global history.

Taking a fresh look at the relationships between these four pivotal characters from the text it offers some new ideas on the huge wealth divide a city like Rio suffers. For students of the play, or those looking for an interpretation that isn’t scared to have fun with a classic, this is a visual treat with enough substance to leave you mulling over the themes on the trip home.

Knock Against My Heart is at Birmingham Rep until 23 October and then touring throughout November 2008

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