What to say about the prodigious play Casa Portuguesa, with text and staging by Pedro Penim, on stage (until October 16) at Teatro D. Maria II? And how to say it? How to deal with a proposal, at once radical and refined, challenging our current scarcity of critical thinking (far beyond theater)?
Let’s put it in really cultural terms (the adverb “really” is a sign of an intellectual despair which, of course, the reader may not share). Let’s remember that culture is not a media celebration punctuated by the televised joy of politicians, it does not depend on the fact that Portuguese canoeing has won a medal abroad… Which, by the way, does not exclude canoeing from our cultural life. Nor the projection of rosé wine across borders. Not even the new fados enhanced by drums, double bass and samba sobs.
Culture is the most beautiful of contradictions: it does not aim to annihilate the other, but it is a war. of what? Of ideas and values. It is made of the cleavages of our living. No matter how genuine the good will with which we embrace, deluded by the certainty that “we are all Portuguese”, there is no way, for example, to conceive, proclaim or justify that the latest telenovela and the most recent films by João Mário Grilo and João Botelho belong to the same system of cultural values.
To be and not to be Portuguese: a drama that echoes in Pedro Penim’s remarkable Casa Portuguesa, on stage at Teatro D. Maria II.”
Hence the (culturally, precisely) schizophrenia in which we live. We are self-absorbed, speculating about Fernando Santos’s state of mind, the relevance or the absurdity of Cristiano Ronaldo’s continuation in the national team, while Casa Portuguesa does not make headlines or raise heated debates. It will be asked: debate what? Maybe it’s better this way. Perhaps we should settle down and celebrate, ecstatic (including the author of this text), the delirious centimeters with which the law of offside is scientifically applied. The rest, that is, the art of trying to circulate ideas among us, will be a small thing. And it doesn’t give medals.
Why the sadness of being like this? In its wonderful creative joy, Casa Portuguesa involves the recognition of this sadness, that is, the fact that our cultural volatility passes through the resignation with which we reduce our history – with a dramatic emphasis on the Colonial War – to a collage of advertising video clips, accumulating childish symbologies without any relation to the tremor of our bodies and the uncertainties of our ideas.
After all, the story is absurdly simple. Here’s its most recent version and with the best media rating: there was something way back there, but it doesn’t matter… then fascism came and we were left in the dark; a little further on, the 25th of April happened and we were freed; however, let’s not despair because, even with Rafa’s excuse, we may still be World Champions. Without forgetting that we can always be eliminated playing the best football in the world – it won’t make history, but it always feeds mythology, promotes the sale of beer and renews the youthful fascination of trading cards (once again, the author of the text, measured in beer, is not excluded from the nerd ritual).
Let’s say, for simplicity’s sake, that the humor that all this (also) involves is launched on stage by the fascinating performance of Lila Tiago and João Caçador, the duo Fado Bicha. Revisiting, recreating, perversely celebrating the legendary song Uma Casa Portuguesa (written in the late 1940s by Reinaldo Ferreira, Vasco Matos Sequeira and Artur Fonseca), they appear as an unusual variation of the Portuguese-style “compère” of the magazine, even if the effects the scenic elements of its sophisticated presence quickly diverge, somehow bringing them closer to the choir’s function in classical tragedy.
Between realism and nightmare (is the nightmare the ultimate form of realism?), it is about following the encounters and disagreements of three characters: a man who carries traumatic memories of the war in Africa; his daughter whose lively and contagious militancy is organized around the certainty that “men are garbage”; finally, her son, with an agile body and fluid speech, who seems condemned to live haunted by the literary and philosophical heritage of Franz Kafka’s Letter to the Father.
All this, for once, is given to us – and given – without the slightest contamination of the formal system of telenovelas, that narrative virus (meaning: industrial) that every day compels talented actors to abdicate their talent, at the same time it promotes young performers condemned to function as puppets of (in)expressive tics copied from the advertising universe.
João Lagarto is there, an immense actor, at once carnal and abstract, consummating with unusual precision what Pedro Penim’s text demands of him: exposing the convulsive existence of his character, not letting him fall into any moral or ideological stereotype. Sandro Feliciano is an admirable debut, a true “natural” (as they say in American cinema), lending the meticulous work of composition the illusion of happy spontaneity. In short, Carla Maciel is a magical presence on stage (and on screen, may I add), as if the words had arrived a little earlier in the territory of the stage, being the human incarnation of her radiance – and also of the silences that carry .
Life and death in Portugal – this is a possible subtitle for this Portuguese House. Life that resists. Death that we snuggled, not knowing what place to give it in the stubborn desire to live. We will, perhaps, be theatrical masks of that cruel ambiguity of being that Kafka formulates in the Letter to the Father (I quote the translation by Manuel João Gomes, edition & Etc., 1983): “Nothing, really, not even your distrust of others, equals my distrust of myself, distrust in which I was brought up by you.”