SHAKESPEARE À LA BRASILEIRA COULOURS PORTUGAL
A REVIEW OF
SUA INCELENÇA, RICARDO III
PRODUCED BY CLOWNS DE SHAKESPEARE
PORTO, PRAÇA D. JOÃO I, 09 JUNE 2013
Review by Livia Segurado
The Brazilian theatre company Clowns de Shakespeare participated in the closing ceremonies of the FITEI 2013 in Porto, last June, with their acclaimed version of William Shakespeare’s King Richard III. The play debuted in 2010, winning prizes in national and international festivals, and was directed by Gabriel Villela, who went to Portugal for the occasion.
The troupe impress with its multitalented performance that includes dancing, singing, and playing different instruments on stage. Marcos França as Richard is a remarkable actor and musician, while Titina Medeiros (Queen Elizabeth) and Dudu Galvão (playing several characters) charm us with their outstanding voices. The cast as a whole masters the circussy language of the production, denouncing the cynicism of the powerful through fine irony and laughter.
Despite the highly tragic content of Richard III, the Brazilian company focuses on a farcical take of the events and on physical humour, without radically changing the plot. The title, Sua Incelença, Ricardo III, sets from the very beginning a national identity statement that permeates the whole production. The word incelença here contains a double pun. On the one hand, it is a corruption of the word for the honorific style “His/Her Excellency”: Sua Excelência. This corruption immediately brings to Lusophone ears an image of regional or rural speech, as a deviated variety of the standard form, denoting the backlands, and lower levels of formal education. On the other hand, it refers to the incelenças or incelências, a variety of musical expression typical of Northeastern Brazil in the form of a broad collection of short songs performed almost exclusively in funeral contexts – but such meaning is neither obvious to a Portuguese audience, nor familiar to many native Brazilians, similarly unaware of this tradition.
Even though the comedy of this Northeastern Brazilian production seduces the audience to a great extent, some of the strongest regional references pass unacknowledged by the Lusitanian public, causing perhaps lesser impact than expected by the company. All in all, throughout the play, more specific regional references tend to lose their impact, as in the case of the preto velho in Act II. Literally meaning ‘old black men’, pretos velhos are powerful entities in the Umbanda religion, an example of Brazilian religious syncretism. In Brazil, they prove to be popular cultural figures, regardless of religious beliefs. But in Porto, the ailing King Edward IV speaking in their typical parlance and using their body gestures (Act II, sc. I) does not seem to make much sense to the general audience – pretos velhos being barely known in this country.
Now, the characterisation of Richard (fig.1) as a vicious man is more successfully done. This is initially conveyed through his dark, heavy clothes, and as he appears on stage for the first time, he is seen wearing a pig mask made of leather. The symbol of the pig as a reference to greed and gluttony pervades the production as a whole. Richard’s first lines, for instance, are in fact pig grunts and squeals. By correlation, this image also alludes to dirtiness, impurity and unholiness.
Richard is not exactly portrayed with a clear hunchback, as is the case in many productions, but there are several hints of his crippleness: he has lame left arm, hand and foot, and he limps and walks in a slouched manner. To complete such a suspicious appearance, the actor wears tattoo sleeves, relying on a ‘badass’, hardcore, or rock’ n’ roll stereotype close to caricature. His sexual appetite is also hinted at right from his first appearance, as he suggests masturbating movements when caressing a red plastic watering can between his legs (which is in fact his ‘horse’), oinking and snorting all the while. The scene (Act I, sc.I) can be regarded as an example of the director’s choice to turn the verbal puns and sexual innuendos (easily lost in translation and, as such, often unperceived by the spectators) into physical humour, conveying them visually rather than orally, in an effective adaptation of the original text to the stage context.
From costumes to props and setting, Villela’s production does not try to create any realistic illusion. Spectators can clearly see the actors changing costumes right behind an open stage designed for the streets, thereby breaking the ‘fourth wall.’ The audience does not seem bothered by the appearance of the great Duchess of York (César Ferrario, also doubling as Sir James Tyrrel and the Duke of Clarence) in a long fringed red dress, blond wig and golden crown, in sharp contrast with the actor’s natural thick black moustache à la Fred Mercury (fig.2). On the contrary, it revels in laughter and applauses, particularly when Ferrario shakes his wig off, dramatically singing the ballad section of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Also part of the fantasy of the production is the mix of fine fabric (silk and velvet, for instance) and rustic, simple materials (working boots, canvas), in line with the director’s intention to blend international with regional environments, and the erudite with the popular. The idea is to create a mixture of styles and debunk a supposed cultural hierarchy, in a production that celebrates national identity but tries to communicate with a wider audience. The result is the overall image of a colourful patchwork of styles that confers the production a unique, magical atmosphere. The same principle applies for the choice of music, another important element in this production.
Indeed, most background sound and songs are performed live. The whole troupe sings and plays different instruments (from a xylophone to clarinets), and Richard is always busy playing either the piano or the accordion. The play even opens with the whole group on stage singing and dancing choreographically to “Daydream”. As a consequence, the audience is often taken by surprise, especially when it recognises a familiar tune and hear the lyrics in English, perhaps not expecting that unpredicted mix of a Brazilian adaptation with songs in a foreign language. International songs are mostly sung live over pre-recorded music, while the typically Brazilian and folkloric music is always live. This alternation between Anglophone and Brazilian songs reinforces the collage effect characterizing the production. The Brazilian songs performed are well-known nursery rhymes or famous pieces of folk music from the Northeast, having their lyrics altered to include character names or details of the story. Unsurprisingly, the public tends to react with more indifference to them than towards the international hits, to which the vast majority of the audience sang and clapped along.
This ‘indifference’ is especially true in Acts I and II, for in Act III, the comic figure of the cangaceiro (Sir Jame Tyrrel) breaks down any resistance, greatly benefiting the flow of the remaining part of the performance (fig. 3). Cangaceiros have been emblematic figures of the Northeastern region since the 19th century. Their typical attire contributes to their stereotypization: coarse brown leather clothing (trousers, jacket and hat) lavishly decorated, shotguns, and a long narrow knife called peixeira are their basic items. That is the exact image chosen to represent Tyrrel, called by Richard to kill those representing any danger to his ascending the throne: Lord Rivers, Lord Hastings, the young princes and the Duke of Buckingham. Incidentally, all the murders Tyrrel perform have an amusingly clownish manner and most lines are delivered in song. As a result, a mix of fear and fascination is reproduced on stage, for the audience laughs, sings and dances along an engaging folk music – even if it is not familiar with the reference to cangaceiros.
Also carefully chosen, the props are creative, colourful and in line with Gabriel Villela’s aesthetics of mixing genres, statuses and national/international references. The pattern of plastic flowers and parasols (some white, others black or red) already seen in Romeu e Julieta, is part and parcel of Villela’s Rococo and poetic style (fig.4). Three richly decorated wooden carts at the base of the semi-circle marked on the ground, are covered in the back and on the top by tapestries; they serve as privileged positions on stage, but also as a wardrobe and as a backstage dressing room. Other unexpected objects adorn the stage: in Act V, some of the ghosts of Richard’s victims are represented by four airdancers distributed at the back of the carts (fig.5). Such objects are hugely popular in Brazil, where they are called bonecos de posto (i.e. ‘petrol station dolls’), for they tend to be associated with petrol station advertising. Another example is the green coconuts on which faces were carved and drawn (fig.3) to represent the princes locked in the tower and then killed by Tyrell – not a casual choice, since the green types (instead of the brown ones) are at a younger stage of maturation, just like King Edward IV’s young sons. More importantly, the green coconuts can be immediately associated with such tropical countries as Brazil.
It is impressive that we can still call Sua Incelença, Ricardo III tragic, for the only grave moments are focused on Queen Margaret’s ominous speeches and curses, and on Act V, as well as in the aftermath of Richard’s death. Yet, such moments manage to counterbalance the overwhelming comic tone of the performance. All other scenes of gore and violence are here turned into folk dance with a long knife (the murder of Rivers and Hastings), strangling of coconuts straws (young princes), or suffocation of a hairless rubber puppet in a plastic bag (Clarence). Laughter and tears being both powerful expressions of strong feelings, the director’s privileged choice for catharsis is certainly the former. But regardless of all its comic elements and its light-hearted denouement (the actors sing, play and dance around the stage at the end), the spectators keep considering Shakespeare’s play as a tragedy of greed and self-indulgence—and this can be felt throughout the brief moment of absolute silence which generally follows Richard’s death. The spectators only start moving once the lights are turned back on, and their initial timidity is suddenly turned into standing ovation.
With this peculiar production of Richard III, Villela’s idea is to paint a Shakespearean scene with vivid Brazilian colours. Does he go too far in his cultural reappropriation, to the point of failing to establish a dialogue with his Portuguese audience? Not really. Some elements or symbols may be unfortunately lost, but in various degrees, most spectators seem to leave the show with the feeling of having spent a magical night somewhere in folkloric Brazil, while never leaving the flexible boundaries of the Shakespearean realm.
Pellegrini, Marcelo 2011. “Entidades da Umbanda refletem história cultural brasileira.” Agência Usp de Notícias <url: http://www.usp.br/agen/?p=70290>. Last accessed 18/07/2013.
Festival Internacional de Teatro de Expressões Ibéricas.
 Umbanda blends African creeds, Catholicism, Spiritism and some indigenous faith elements. Pretos velhos are spirits that present themselves in the form of old African male slaves, full of wisdom, humility, patience and faith. They are easily recognised sitting on their stool, slowly smoking a pipe, blessing people with branches of rue and puffs of his pipe. Some researches argue they are an Afro-Brazilian metaphor of Jesus Christ (see Pellegrini: 2011).
 A very famous symphonic pop/rock song by Belgian band Wallace Collection, originally recorded in 1968.
Nomadic bandits that fight against all types of authority, from powerful and rich landowners to government representatives. Just like hit men, cangaceiros can also be hired for revenge.
 First Shakespeare production by the director Gabriel Villela, it debuted in 1992 and became an iconic production in contemporary Brazilian theatre.
Large inflatable apparatuses made of a light fabric similar to that of a windsock, consisting of a long tube attached to a fan which causes the tube to move in a dancing or waving motion.