The Two Gentlemen of Verona, An Adaptation in Portuguese of Shakespeare's Comedy by Nós do Morro, Bite08, Barbican Pit, London

  OCTOBER 2008  
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The Brazilian creative venture founded by the actor Guti Fraga, Nós do Morro, explodes into the Barbican Pit space with its heady, energetic and youthful adaptation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Fraga's company of actors are drawn from the Vidigal community to the south of Rio de Janeiro. Vidigal is no smart suburb, no comfortable training ground for artists and performers supported by parental and grandparental bank accounts. Vidigal is a shanty town, one of the infamous favola, rife with gang violence and uncomfortably high mortality rate among its population of over forty thousand people.

Given its location and the social hardships its members have to endure, it is astonishing that such vibrant and exciting art should emerge from the squalor and neglect. Astonishing, but not necessarily surprising. Wherever dedicated artists like Fraga invest their time and energy in promoting a sense of pride and fulfilment in the young, young people invariably respond with an enthusiasm which is only matched by their need to escape their surroundings, whether literally or metaphorically into the world of music, art and drama.

As for The Two Gentlemen of Verona (for the Portuguese speakers amongst us, Os Dois Cavaleiros de Verona), this production first appeared in the UK at Stratford in 2006 as part of the RSC's Complete Shakespeare season. It is now re-presented for Bite08 at the Barbican Pit, in collaboration with People's Palace Project, an arts organisation based at Queen Mary, University of London, whose remit is to promote an awareness and appreciation of ‘difference' on a local and international level.

Rest assured, all those who are not as fluent in Portuguese as that noticeable minority in the play's audience, who laughed uproariously at Brazilian in-jokes, will appreciate the English surtitles which hover above the performers' heads. And what performers. Young women and men adopt characters, play musical instruments, even transmogrify into believable objects of scenery, to present this potentially tragic though ultimately comic tale of love, betrayal and ultimate friendship.

The sixteen-strong cast add an unquenchable energy and a tangible sense of camaraderie to this romp through a Shakespeare classic. Dressed in casual gear as if off to spend a day skateboarding in the local streets, the actors don the merest hint of a costume with lengths of coloured material to express their characters. Whether as duke or slimy courtier, doting lover or cross-dressed page, the young troupe explores every physical and vocal nuance of its collective parts. Sometimes very funny, at other times deeply moving, there is no denying the commitment these performances betray.

Our own doyenne of Shakespearean verse, Cicely Berry, ever watchful from the back of the auditorium, has given her time and energy to the company. The result, a fascinating evening of movement and laughter as actors become crutch-besotted dogs who snuffle and sniff their (or their master's) genitals or raucous servants who wriggle with sexual delight. Others mount the shoulders of their compatriots, one actor expressing an entire building complete with raised balcony. Yet more evoke classical nude-adorned royal gateways, provocatively clutching their bare breasts in their hands as they are transported into position on the stage.

Visually, and aurally, this is a play which oozes passion. It is a play to experience. It is a play which celebrates the power of art and drama to provide a focus for the disaffected and deprived. To these young Brazilians, Guti Fraga is tantamount to an artistic saint. The Barbican Pit celebrates the bravery of this project and continues to forge links with international modes of artistic expression in innovative and, as I said before, ‘astonishing' ways.

Kevin Quarmby © 2008