Tuesday 15 July 2014

Os Negros e os Deuses do Norte – Sala Experimental

[seen 14/07/14]

publicity shot - perf pix if/when available

CIA/JGM’s Os Negros e os Deuses do Norte is *experimental theatre*. I was told this by a Portuguese fellow writer as we sat down, when I asked him if he’d translate the odd bit for me. “I think it will be impossible” he suggested. In the event, translation was largely unnecessary, as, in this instance, *experimental theatre* turned out to mean *three-piece Patti Smith gig*.

It starts worryingly. Two blokes are noodling away on guitar and violin, a rack of effects pedals each, and it’s all a bit Gypsy Pink Floyd. Then a light comes up on a small gold lamé covered mattress with performer Sara Ribero face-down, topless and writhing around. Oh crap, I thought, remembering that one of the many excellent rules-of-thumb for spotting appalling sexism in performance is: clothed men, topless woman. In the event, this rule feels about as relevant as it would telling Janice Joplin or Patti Smith that what they have chosen to wear is inappropriate in the view of modern feminism. That is to say, toplessness it is, exploitative or sexual it clearly ain’t.

Indeed, the spectre of the seventies (the UK/US musical seventies, not the revolutionary Marxist Portuguese seventies, annoyingly) looms large and hangs over the proceedings. Which is basically a bunch of Patti Smith-sounding numbers. Even a bunch of the lyrics are in English with phrases nicked wholesale from the Doors “All the children are insane” and Smith herself: “n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word / n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word”.

So, yeah, rather than sexism, what it turns out we end up needing to discuss are the “racial politics” of the piece. Around which I have yet to fully get my head. Scare quotes for “racial politics” since on one or more levels, calling what’s on stage here “racial politics” seems like critiquing a Wendy house with postmodernist architectural theory. i.e. you *could*, but really, why would you? Well, because “Wendy houses” are probably all sorts of normative and sexist, so...

The ethnic make up of the group is approximately (visually): one balding black bloke on guitar, one seriously built “hispanic” type on violin/vocals/various-other-things (is hispanic a thing if we’re in Portugal? IDK, anyway), and one topless, ostensibly “white” Portuguese woman (scare quotes for “white” because, well, Portuguese people aren’t as white as, say, Polish people, are they?).

She seems to be singing a song about “Bringing black back” (in which the Patti Smith quote recurs numerous times. I think in several languages). This is a frequent refrain throughout the show.

Watching, my main thought was: “Well, Christ; you wouldn’t get away with this at BAC; even if your guitarist is black”. This in turn made me think, I wonder why not? I mean, it was plainly well-meaning. Texto is by João Garcia Miguel (who also did Direcção and Encenação). For all I know, he’s the guitarist (the programme seems a bit vague on identifying the musicians). In which case I guess everything gets a bit less “edgy”. But otherwise, we have got this *well-meaning* show liberally laced with the n-word and generally thrashing about in the shallows of the drug-addled seventies trying to “bring black back”. From where to where is never made clear, at least, not in English. There’s also a fair bit of decrying religion, which manages to elicit the first walk-out after only about fifteen minutes or so.

Of course, I’m writing about this with literally all the attempt to understand another culture that Charles Spencer usually deploys. I think, looked at charitably I could dismount this very high horse, duties discharged, and say that probably this isn’t actually as problematic here as it might be in Britain (let alone the States). It’s weird, really. We Brits think we’ve got a *really good handle* on, y’know, racial politics – at least enough to think we’re in a position to lecture anyone else. And yet, well, Britain’s still a terrifyingly racist country. (Want a good example? Try the comments section from this Daily Mail article published today/yesterday. See? We’re still basically in the fucking dark ages. So why shouldn’t the Portuguese have an upbeat Patti Smith tribute act singing about “bringing black back”. Maybe that’ll work better than white, liberal British uptightness, claiming to be deeply concerned, doing nothing, and having a crazy racist underbelly which turns out to be most of the body politic).

As theatre it’s basically not. It’s much more an arty gig that happens to play in a theatre and be watched by a seated audience. But let’s not open that “what is/isn’t theatre” can of worms on top of everything else. Sure, if it wants to be theatre then it is. I reckon it might want to do a bit more self-interrogation, but, y’know, I wasn’t bored. It passed the time. The home crowd seemed to love it. I dunno.

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