I love the theatre, on the whole. Recently though, I am at a play with a friend, which, we decide, is a failure on every level. The reviews for this play have been good. My friend and I swap emails in astonishment: “I think we were the only two people with our eyes open at that play,” I write. “I would have begun my review with ‘that was the worst play I have ever seen,’” my friend replies.
I’ve just started reading “Summer House with Swimming Pool” the new Herman Koch novel and there is a brilliant paragraph on seeing productions of Shakespeare. He mentions, “Romeo and Juliet in the never-completed tunnel of a subway line, with concentration camp photos on the walls, down which sewage trickled; Macbeth in which all the female roles were played by naked men – the only clothing they wore was a thong between their buttocks, with handcuffs and weights hanging from their nipples.” He explains how time “coagulates” when sitting through a bad experience at the theatre: “I can remember delays at airports that must have lasted half a day, easily, but which were over ten times as quickly as any of those plays.”
My recent experience and reading this remind me of my first taste of theatre in Brazil.
Two days after I arrive in São Paulo, Isabella takes me to a play. My Portuguese at this point is non-existent. In the car on the way to the theatre, she tells me we’re going to see Othello. Ok. At least I know the story, I think. Can’t be too bad.
We arrive early to beat the traffic, which means we are there well over an hour before it is due to start. As we pick up the free tickets she has organised, I see a sign that even I can understand: 3 horas 45 minutos. Fuck. We cross the road and wait in a café. A couple arrive who seem to know Isabella, an old, craggy, leather-faced man in sunglasses, a suede jacket and too-tight trousers, and a small, shrill looking woman with big hair and a dramatic nose. The man takes Isabella’s hands and mutters some compliment or other, prompting giggling and much feigning modesty; the woman scowls openly at her, arms crossed, snorting and stamping her feet.
This is the director, and Desdemona. Of course. We meet our friends and take our seats. It’s then, just as the lights are going down, that I am told that the director is an old boyfriend of Isabella’s – he her mentor; she his muse – when at drama school, and that Desdemona is his current muse. Mentor. Ok. So, the likelihood of me enjoying the play is significantly reduced. That the opening scene involves half a dozen naked Brazilians wrapped in cling film certainly doesn’t improve things. That the acting is execrable and direction unfathomable – and that both of those things are clear despite no understanding of the language – means the experience is slightly less enjoyable than invasive dental surgery. At the finale, after 3 hours and 45 minutes, The Doors’ ‘The End’ plays and I weep. This is bad Sixth-Form drama at its worst.
Oh well. On the way home Isabella accuses me of not liking it because of the director. I point out that this is a fair reason for not liking a play. She chooses to misunderstand this. I then accuse her of criticising Desdemona’s performance because she is now with the mentor. (Fact is it was one of the worst performances I have ever seen.) Isabella doesn’t like this much either, but, sadly, does not choose to misunderstand it.
Suddenly, stuck in traffic on the way home, 3 hours and 45 minutes doesn’t seem like such a long time.