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Senhora dos Afogados - Our Lady of the Drowned at Southwark Playhouse

Mary Couzens of EXTRA! EXTRA!

This is quite possibly the most compelling piece of theatre on in London at the moment, and easily one of the most important theatrical events of the year.


Misael (Livy Armstrong) daughter Moema (Bronwyn Lim) and son Paulo (Alistair Gillyatt). Photo courtesy of Stone Crabs

Stone Crabs are to be commended for bringing the late Nelson Rodrigues' metaphoric, lyrical play to Southwark Playhouse, and this production of the illustrious Brazilian playwright's drama is the first to be performed for an English speaking audience in the UK.

The play was inspired by the sea stories of Rodrigues' native town, Recife, in north-eastern Brazil, and his time spent writing newspaper crime pages in Rio de Janeriro. Written in 1947, it was originally banned for seven years before playing to packed houses in Brazil. The play itself has only ever been performed once before in the UK. The translation so effectively performed here, by Stone Crabs is by Rodrigues' son, Joffre.

The action of the play centres on the bourgeois Drummond Family and the brothels of the dockyards nearby. Family patriarch Misael has had shadowy skeletons rattling in his closet for nineteen years. His daughter Moema harbours forbidden passions and an unquenchable desire for revenge. The time for secrets, however, is drawing to a close...

Rodrigues' words paint colourful strokes against a backdrop of seaport and sky. Viewers succumb to their implications as puppets to the of the pulling of their strings, but no mechanisms are visible on the surface of this fine production, directed with shimmering precision and Balance by Kwong Loke. Although Loke assured us over post theatre drinks that he has never worked with Stone Crabs before, he and the company appear to be on a honeymoon of sorts, which one hopes will never end.

From the first fascinating moments of this production, which features finely crafted sound by Dinah Mullen, sensitive lighting, courtesy of Adam Croasthwaite, memorable photography of Marian Alonso, and imaginative video art by Matthew Deely, the performance assumes a misty, far away atmosphere which captivates, as the sea seems to surge around the audience. Fantastically inventive, deceptively simplistic set design by Kimie Nakano adds extra dimensions to Our Lady... that most productions, fringe or otherwise could only dream of. And all of these creative components are accompanied by a first rate cast, whose mesmerizing performances seem to elevate the text of Rodrigues' hypnotic play into the mythic realm of sirens' songs.

Famed Brazilian actress Tereza Araujo is absolutely riveting as Eduardo, the dutiful wife who longs for more, and her enlightened performance echoes those in the Greek tragedies Rodrigues so loved. Bronwyn Lim is memorable as her unpredictable daughter Moema, who alternately glows and shadows like the phases of the moon. Livy Armstrong plays his role of patriarch, Misael with commanding bravado, which reverberates through the performance space, as his facades begin to crumble.

Alistair Gillyatt offers a fine, controlled performance as Moema's brother, Paulo. While, Patrick Ross in the role of Moema's fiancé is truly electrifying. Ruth Posner is very effective in her dual roles of mad grandmother and madam, whilst Ian Keir Attard provides comic moments as a comb salesman, and part of a chorus of neighbors, in which he is accompanied by Louisa Tuesday Ulyatt and Naomi Waring who also play seaside prostitutes. Southwark Playhouse seems like the right place to become immersed in this archetypal drama, which allows one to forget the ideas behind theatrical performance and become enmeshed in the landscape Rodrigues has created.

There is never a dull moment during this production from start to finish, and the acting and directing are such that the two progress down the aisle together forming a perfect union of word and action. Although I am an avid theatergoer and a particular devotee of fringe productions, I have to say that theatre just doesn't come any finer than this. Stone Crabs production of Senhora Dos Afogados – Our Lady of the Drowned has all of the components for an unforgettable theatrical experience. It is one of the most significant, powerful, (and in this country, least performed)
plays of our time. And it features spell-binding performances, as well as set, sound, video, photography and lighting design that are poetry in themselves, as well as, last, but certainly not least, thoughtful, intelligent directing by Kwong Loke.

Listings information – at Southwark Playhouse until Saturday 8 July.

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