Brazil - Part 1
February 25, 2013
With dreams of sashaying along the white sands of Copacabana beach, humming 'The girl from Ipanema,' reality hit as I landed in Rio during a torrential rain storm – unusual weather for the time of year apparently but that was no consolation.
Fortunately by the next day the rain eased and the sun emerged in the afternoon - just in time to go indoors and watch Cicely Berry giving a master class in the central library. Cis has been out here for a week along with Justin Audibert, one of the assistant directors from the RSC's 2011 long ensemble.
They have been working with the young actors of Nos do Morros, a theatre school based in Vidigal, a favela on the hillside overlooking Ipanema beach. Cis has a long history with Nos do Morros and a strong warm relationship with its founder, Guti.
The company are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year and were keen to bring Cis back to work with them again, which was made possible through The People's Palace Project based at Queen Mary University in London. Paul Heritage from PPP decided to build a Shakespeare Forum around Cis's visit so she was joined by Justin, and by Bridget Escolme from Queen Mary, plus me. Bridget was invited to work with university students; I was invited to work with teachers from the favelas. It was an excellent opportunity to share our practice with them and find out more about their situation as part of my World Shakespeare Festival case study on Brazil.
My first day was with the Nos do Morros monitors who were a mixture of teachers for the project and student leaders. Vidigal had been 'pacified' just the week before we arrived. This meant that police and tanks had gone into the favela to arrest the leading drug barons and confiscate weapons. We were told this had made the atmosphere far more relaxed. I have no comparison, of course, but it did seem a pleasant, friendly place rather than the scary, dangerous reputation favelas have.
The Nos do Morros base is an old stone house rising up on several levels through a jumble of steps, balconies, rocks and trees. It apparently belonged to an artist who used it to paint forgeries of famous paintings and to keep his mistress. When his wife inherited the building on his death, she decided to do some good with it and allowed NdM to use the space. The views from the topmost balcony are amazing - down to the white sand sweep of Ipanema beach, across the glittering blue bay and the up into the teeming houses jumbled against the hills, with the imposingly steep stone mountains behind.
The following day I was with teachers from public (ie: free) schools in the Manguinas favela - a very different area of town, just as poor but far less scenic and as yet not pacified. We were working in a space in the public library - an amazing light airy building full of books and computers in a landscaped area - it stood out starkly from the surrounding and obvious poverty. Early on we were interrupted by very loud music which sounded like a rock band rehearsing in the next room. It turned out to be music from the stereo in someone's house! Fortunately the library as a social project has local respect and after a polite request the music was turned off.
However, next came the gunshots. In my naivety, it did sound just like a car backfiring but the reactions of my far less naive teachers made it clear this was not a car but the arrival of the latest cocaine consignment.
In such circumstances it can be hard to believe that anyone should care about a 400 year old English playwright and yet they do. Nos do Morros use theatre as a way for local young people to learn social and artistic skills and have created many Shakespeare productions, including a Two Gentlemen of Verona that they brought to the Complete Works Festival at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2006.
While none of my public school teachers currently taught Shakespeare, they all revered his work and had absorbed a great deal of knowledge about him and his plays through writings, films and general cultural ideas. They found our work very rewarding, not least because the heightened emotions and drama are perhaps even more part of their everyday existence than for most. Many comments were about 'a gentle way into a complex text' and 'understanding the text through the body rather than just the head'.
The energy they brought to their work was inspiring and, added to their commitment, perhaps paints a picture of why Brazil is one of the up and coming world economies. And of course the thing about Brazilians is they know how to work and play! As Cis, Justin, Paul and I sat in a bar in the Lapa area of Rio, the Nos do Morros crew surrounded us with songs and laughter which apparently kept going until 3.30am (long after I'd gone to bed); yet the next morning, many of those same people were completely focused on exploring the anxieties of Hamlet in my workshop. My expanding waistline also testifies to the fact that they know how to eat.
A meeting on my last day in Rio, attended by representatives from the Ministries of Culture and Education, focused on next steps leading up to the Rio Olympics in 2016 and there was a great deal of enthusiasm for Shakespeare. He may not be on the curriculum in schools here but they still see him as one of their own.
Photo by Tracy Irish © RSC
by Tracy Irish
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