‘Not to die, above all not to die.’
One of the gifts of the lockdown has been that suddenly there is a vast amount of international work made accessible online. It’s because of this that I managed to watch ‘Sopro’, which is available on Teatro Nacional D. Maria II’s Vimeo channel. Tiago Rodrigues’ ‘Sopro’ is a love letter to theatre, and to all its invisible heroes. It’s about breathing and living, but above all, it’s a piece about not dying. It’s a gorgeous show, which invites you to walk the line between fiction and reality for an hour and forty-five minutes, guided by Teatro Nacional D. Maria II’s prompter of forty years, Cristina Vidal. Vidal is one of the last active professional prompters working in Portugal, prompting actors in case of forgotten lines or cues – making sure emergencies are handled, and that the shows run smoothly.
At the beginning of the piece, we are presented with a bare stage, a couple of chairs, a sofa – nothing out of ordinary – yet there are plants and trees bursting out from the cracks of the old stage flooring making the space feel strange, almost abandoned. It’s a space, which, when looking at it, feels to be in conversation with both the past and our present. This feeling becomes even stronger when Vidal appears on stage with her prompt book and starts her timer as the production begins and the actors fill the space. There are memories, history, fiction, songs, and a theatre which is breathing and keeping these stories alive. (Or is it the show itself, which is trying to keep breathing life into the theatre?) Either way, it is a space where nothing feels certain or stable, yet through its tender tone allows the viewer to escape any anxiety around separating fiction from reality.
In most of Rodrigues’ work, text feels only like a starting point; he says about his own practice that it is his relationship to these stories and texts, or the connections he can find between those stories and the realities that he observes, that shape his work. ‘Sopro’ is no exception to this. It starts off with three actors retelling (prompted by Vidal), the moment when Rodrigues attempts to convince Vidal to play the main part in the theatres next show, essentially offering to make a show about her. The actress representing Vidal responds that this is “out of question”, but the audience is aware that in fact, Vidal has agreed to him, otherwise we could not be watching this scene. In this way the past and present already start to blend, they move hand in hand, filling the stage with ghosts and characters, with memory and fiction.
‘Sopro’ is an attempt to show theatre from the sidelines, from the inside out. It blends anecdotes from Vidal’s experiences combined with extracts from plays she worked on – European classics from Chekov to Sophocles. We see Vidal’s love for her theatre (which she tells us that she believes is her theatre, more than her director’s), we see how mistakes remind us that theatre is part of the world, and above all, we see how theatre is a tradition which seems to be slipping out of our hands, and too quickly disappearing. The message is deeply personal, yet unapologetically political.
Through its gentle and tender tone, ‘Sopro’ is an urgent plea for saving theatres at a time when theatres continue to face funding cuts from the government. ‘Sopro’ is a piece that argues through a gentle, but an ever-so-powerful voice that public spaces, like theatres, are vital for society. As Rodrigues said in an interview with Coelho in Critical Stages, we need spaces like theatres, spaces where people are still looking for things that are missing – and ‘Sopro’ is all about looking for what’s missing. The show serves to remind the audience of a past that seems to have slipped through the cracks of the old flooring of the theatre itself.
Vidal becomes the puppet master of the piece; she prompts the lines and cues for the actors throughout, allowing her to, though on stage, still hide in the shadows of the company. There is a sense of companionship, a sense that these actors are treasuring and holding both Vidal’s stories, and Vidal herself. The cast sings ‘Wild Is The Wind’, they reenact and repeat certain moments and memories which don’t feel right or are uncomfortable to remember, and they show us how Vidal sees the world from her side of the stage. All of this is gently leading us towards the final heart-wrenching moments, when for the first time, for seven brief lines, Vidal doesn’t prompt, rather, she is left alone on stage to simply say seven lines –the final few lines of the only show she worked on that had to stop the performance before it was finished, and so the only final lines from one of Vidal’s shows that the audience was previously never able to hear.
‘Sopro’ is a homage to Vidal, and to theatres invisible practitioners, but above all, it is an act of resistance. It’s a piece that breathes life into theatre and invites us to experience life – as the actor portraying the director says- “on the bridge between the bank of reality and the bank of fiction”. It reminds us that often the most joy can be found when mistakes happen and that these accidents, in fact, are what remind us that theatre is part of our world.
Directed and written by Tiago Rodrigues
With Beatriz Brás, Cristina Vidal, Isabel Abreu, João Pedro Vaz, Sofia Dias, Vítor Roriz
Set and lighting design, Thomas Walgrave
Costumes, Aldina Jesus
Sound, Pedro Costa
Assistant director, Catarina Rôlo Salgueiro
A Teatro Nacional D. Maria II (Lisbon) production
Available with English subtitles: https://vimeo.com/showcase/6879385/video/256400519
Trailer available: https://vimeo.com/264410108
Written by Júlia Lévai. You can check out her other articles here.