Cassie Werber

Writer & journalist

Othello revisited and Brecht embraced

Published in Total Theatre, Spring 2010

There are many branches to Odin’s activity, from pedagogy to poetry reading, and from individual performances to large-scale touring productions. The performances tonight – on the night I visit – make an interesting contrast.

First is Orô de Otelo (Ceremony of Othello) created through a collaboration between Barba and Afro-Brazilian dancer Augusto Omolú, with input from company member Julia Varley. The dance piece draws on both Shakespeare’s text and the Verdi opera, and, as the programme states, is ‘based exclusively on the codification of the Orixá dances; all gestures, steps and movements originate from the dances of the saints and gods of the Candomblé religion.’ On a stage bare but for drums surrounded by fresh leaves and candles, Omolú performs the long piece alone, dancing to Verdi’s opera or to the traditional drum rhythms which regularly creep into and overwhelm it. Omolú’s stage-presence is a bewitching mixture of calm and seething energy, and his movement is joyful – both to witness and, it seems, to perform. Describing his discovery of the Orixá dances, Barba has recalled: ‘to me, they were very, very beautiful. And not only beautiful but one of the best examples of what an actor’s training should be – they work with rhythm, with different energies, with precision, with sign.’ In making the performance, however, both Omolú and Barba found difficulties in trying to fit their methods and their mediums together. The final piece looks both to Omolú’s upbringing in the Brazilian coastal city of Salvador, and to Barba’s childhood, when brass bands would visit the Italian province and play opera arias. While the ambition of experimentation in the piece is admirable, and the performance magnetic, I did not feel in watching it that the dialogue was complete. For me, Verdi did not add enough to explain his presence, and the storytelling – though carefully detailed in the accompanying literature – did not have enough clarity to be read without it.

Omolú performs again in the night’s second piece, and here, while less ‘in his element’, he is nevertheless fully embedded in a work which knows exactly what it is doing. Great Cities Under the Moon is ‘a concert in the spirit of Bertolt Brecht’. Barba has described it as ‘a sitting performance’, explaining that because the Odin ensemble is so used to being physical, the challenge of the piece was to remain as static as possible. When there is movement, it is deliberate and often filled with symbolism; a mute girl’s explanation of her story in sign language; her subsequent rape, performed in solitude while the rest of the performers continue to sit in a quiet semi-circle; a wine glass, smashed. The ensemble – seated, seasoned, and consummately familiar with Brecht’s confrontation techniques – seems filled with an expansive energy, constant and powerful as an ocean. For me, this was the chief pleasure of watching this performance, told from the viewpoint of the moon passing uncritically over the burning cities of the world below. Voices rich with experience take turns to sing; bodies grounded in the certitude of years spent inhabiting the present moment are presented to us, openly, full-face. When a bare foot takes a step on a stage scattered with shards of glass, the audience winces. A goldfish becomes the ludicrous symbol of violence against innocence. Dust – ashes of a city, a body; from the corner of a dirty room – is thrown to the ground, swept into the shape of a swastika, and makes the front rows cough. It is perfect Brecht: we are pissed off by the performance, but it gets inside us. This piece might not be groundbreaking, but it knows exactly how to handle its tools of juxtaposition, silliness, offence and simple heartbreak.

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