UNPERFECT ACTOR (ACTOR IMPERFEITO), an adaptation by Luísa Costa Gomes of Shakespeare’s sonnets, directed by ANTÓNIO PIRES for TEATRO DO BAIRRO (LISBOA), at TEATRO CARLOS ALBERTO, PORTO, PORTUGAL. Seen on 1st February 2014.
Reviewed by Miguel Ramalhete Gomes
Stage performances based on Shakespeare’s sonnets have come to occupy a rare though often special presence in the production history of Shakespearian texts, from Peter Brook’s chamber adaptation of 31 of the sonnets, “Love Is My Sin” (2010), to Robert Wilson’s massive version of only 25 sonnets, Shakespeares Sonette, performed with music by Rufus Wainwright at the Berliner Ensemble in 2009.
Luísa Costa Gomes’ adaptation ambitiously included almost 80 sonnets, besides excerpts from some plays, mostly Shakespearian, in a production lasting shortly less than two hours. Its characters, from Will to the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady, as well as the Rival Poet and several others, enacted the traditional narrative that is usually derived from a linear reading of the sonnets (although the adaptation did not place these in a linear sequence), while regularly punctuating it with surprising and thought-provoking insights into the problems and pitfalls of translating these condensed poems into the polysyllabic and often verbose language that Portuguese is. Such a demanding literary exercise is undoubtedly a challenge to the dynamics of the theatre and was unevenly met by its staging, though it certainly remained a worthwhile experiment whose failings might stimulate a more consistent approach in the future.
The greatest hindrance to the success of the production was almost certainly its attempt to do too many things in such a short amount of time. Packing some 80 sonnets in under two hours, as well as excerpts from Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Ben Jonson’s Poetaster, and three sonnets by the greatest of Portuguese sonneteers, Luís Vaz de Camões, the production felt rushed, even though the stage action was often sparse. The conceptual and syntactical complexity of the sonnets was rarely allowed to sink in and, from a certain point onwards, one fell under the onslaught of so many successive sonnets. The inclusion of dramatic excerpts brought a welcome respite from the condensation of the poems, often providing hilarious comic relief, as when the confrontation with the figure of the Rival Poet was followed by an excerpt from the last scene of Poetaster, in which Crispinus vomits his words into a basin. Crispinus’ provisional cure from a surfeit of obscure and contrived words also served to temporarily purge the spectators from the excess of sonnetry, while also suggesting some degree of playful or wary admission from the part of the adapter that all of this might indeed be a bit too much. Excerpts from Shakespearian plays were less successfully inserted, as they contributed more to the general mood of the production, rather than to interrupt its flow, while adding unnecessary and sometimes confusing plot elements to an already complex assemblage of texts.
The ceaseless flow of sonneteering found an uneven conduit in the performers themselves. The declamation was often more musical than meaningful and the word flow was delivered at a pace much more adequate to a dramatic text. The challenge of reciting several of the sonnets in the original language – often to the point of bilingualism –, though conceptually justified by the interest in exploring the problems of translation, was flawlessly met only by Maya Booth, who played a convincing and mesmerizing “Voice of the Original Text”. The intrusion of early modern English, which would in any case have been a trial for an audience almost surely unaccustomed to it, became alienating as some of the other actors manifestly struggled with an irregularly accented English diction. This was somewhat regrettable as the stage set was obviously designed to focus attention on the actors alone. Some two or three tables and an imposing red curtain to the left, complemented by a few props, such as candles, swords, a bucket, food and drink, composed a practically bare stage. The greatest visual investment was clearly made on the costumes, which alternated between recognisably Elizabethan modes of aristocratic dress and striking stylised versions of it.
By far the most fascinating aspect of the production was its dramatisation of the problems of translation. The production opened with the recitation of sonnet 23, “As an unperfect actor on the stage”, of which Rui Morisson, playing the role of the translator sitting at a desk in modern dress, hesitantly attempted to produce a Portuguese version. Counting syllables, stumbling and wavering between diverse versions of the first quatrain, he finally consulted the best-known Portuguese translation of these poems, by Vasco Graça Moura. Present throughout the play, the translator often interrupted the flow of the action to comment on it, offering further translations of the poems, as well as paraphrases, explanations, corrections and even a amusingly bungled version produced via Google translator and read from a tablet. His several attempts to translate the second line of sonnet 23, “Who with fear is put beside his part”, eloquently told of the awkwardness of his role and interventions, which were compounded by the occasional recitation of sonnets by the late Renaissance Portuguese poet Camões. These would shine out among the translations of Shakespeare, thereby stressing the enormous difficulty of ever achieving a similar impact and stylistic beauty in Portuguese as that which was transmitted by Camões’ sonnets. Indeed, one of the main themes of the adaptation and its production was precisely the extreme difficulty of communication – between lovers, between poet and dedicatee, between author and translator, and crucially between the performers and their audience. Luísa Costa Gomes, the adapter, remarked in press announcements that, in the production, the sonnets were often not meant to be understood, but rather enjoyed in their musicality. The spectators were indeed expected to have some trouble following the ceaseless flow of sonnets and the constant shift between languages. Only in this way could incommunicability be successfully communicated.
An original and risk-taking production, “Unperfect Actor” eventually failed to produce a more solid effect because of the sheer excess of textual material and occasionally imperfect delivery, as well as through the plot dispersal brought about by the insertion of characters from Shakespeare’s plays. Although the performance of incommunicability was one of the production’s goals, it tended to alienate the audience by too much stress on the topic. It remained, however, a fascinating experiment and I for one would happily welcome a textually leaner and less compressed version of it.