REVIEW: By Heart (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Rachael Longshaw-Park

[Sweet Vocal Thought]

Can poetry give us hope?

This is the question posed by Tiago Rodrigues, Portuguese actor and playwright, as he brings his internationally acclaimed show By Heart to Auckland’s Q Theatre Loft.

It is intrinsic in our nature to tell stories and for thousands of years the art of oral storytelling long satisfied our need to pass on information, both fictional and factual. Over time our ability to tell our stories evolved with the progression of technology. With the ability to record – be it with ink, tape or digital film – we have moved away from the act of memorising our stories. To commit anything to memory is unnecessary with the wealth of information constantly at our fingertips. Rodrigues takes his audience on a journey to explore the importance behind learning our art by heart.

The stage is set with ten various wooden chairs placed in a semi-circle, with Rodrigues sitting in the centre on a small stepped stool of his own. In front of him are two large wooden crates filled with piles of well-thumbed books. He announces that the show will not begin until the ten chairs are filled, there is an uncomfortable shift in the room as the audience realises participation is necessary. However, the seats fill surprisingly quickly, and Rodrigues reveals that tonight these ten people will learn, by heart, Sonnet 30 by William Shakespeare. And that the show will not finish until this has been accomplished.

So, not your traditional theatre piece – a disclaimer he makes in his introduction. But, why? Why gather a group of strangers together to watch ten other strangers attempt to memorise a sonnet? Rodrigues weaves together his raison d’etre through multiple narratives, centring on the story of his elderly grandmother; Cândida. Cândida was an avid reader, consuming literature her entire life until she began to lose her eyesight. Upon learning she would lose her sight she asked Rodrigues to take away her books, and instead give her one book to memorise in its entirety. After contemplation and a letter to George Steiner, he chose William Shakespeare’s book of sonnets.

Interspersed between sections of reciting lines, Rodrigues introduces multiple other stories to bring light to the beauty in his grandmother’s wish. Most poignantly, the story of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, who taught her husband’s poetry to ten strangers to counter the censorship Stalin brought upon Russia in the early 20th century. Her act of defiance ignited a reason to utilise oral storytelling: to preserve. Amongst quotes from literary philosopher George Steiner there is an excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the famous novel in which firefighters seek books to burn in a post-intellectual dystopia. And then, we briefly visit the story of Ezekiel and the scroll, from Ezekiel 3.3 in the Bible. These stories frame the act of memorising a poem in a way that exposes it as something political and intimate. Rodrigues invites the ten volunteers to be part of something much more than a recital, he invites them to perform an act of preservation. These ten people have become soldiers in the resistance, guardians of poetry. As the group recite the poem for the final time, and Rodrigues follows in Portuguese, the weight of the act sits in the air before the applause breaks.

If the premise sounds a little lacking in pace, then be warned it is a slow burner of a show, but with the quiet charisma Rodrigues brings to the stage and his casual direction of the audience the journey is a comfortable one. Audience participation isn’t always for everyone but be soothed in the knowledge that Tiago Rodrigues is skilled in holding his audience calmly and controlling the room with joy and a sense of play.

Whether or not poetry can give us hope isn’t openly addressed, but where art can feel frivolous next to the atrocities the world has to offer, Rodrigues gently curates a tender experience that reminds us how important art can be, and how art can tie together even the most unlikely of people with invisible strings.

By Heart plays at Q Loft until 16 March . 

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