It’s the first night and Chris Thorpe and I are standing outside a bar in Bairro Alto. It’s just before midnight which means the street is only just beginning to fill. I can’t quite get over the image before me: Thorpe stands in the middle of the street, locals speaking in animated Portuguese and greeting each other and him. He slouches, stroking his stubble and tucking a freshly rolled cigarette behind his ear. All night he’s been quietly laughing along and chatting with his Portuguese friends. As far as I can tell he speaks only a little Portuguese but a twinkle in his eye seems to suggest he always knows what’s going on. How on earth did he end up here?
So. Amongst many others, Thorpe often works with a company called Third Angel. Third Angel’s co-artistic director Alexander Kelly ran a three month course on Directing in Portugal. Jorge Andrade (co-artistic director of mala voadora) attended the course and after presenting some work was asked if his company would like to collaborate with Third Angel. Alex and Jorge spent many a night in many a flat and arrived at the idea for What I Heard About The World . They asked Thorpe if he’d like to make music for the piece, which he did as well as eventually writing and performing in it. During this time Jorge ended up asking Thorpe to write Overdrama for mala voadora. Bish-bash-bosh a fruitful, collaborative relationship was born.
Thorpe has written three plays with mala. The first was Overdrama. The second was House & Garden which was commissioned when Jorge read Alan Ayckbourn’s diptych of plays of the same tittle. Ayckbourn’s plays are designed to be performed by the same cast in two spaces, a house and its grounds, simultaneously in adjacent auditoria. Jorge liked the concept but not the play(s). So he asked Thorpe to write his own version. Currently in rehearsals is Dead End a piece which uses Portuguese folk stories and filters them through the cliches of melodrama and soap opera.
I read the text on the gatwick express. It’s brilliant. It’s easy humor is mixed with a sensitive intelligence which could only have come from this writer. It is also robust: You can tell that Thorpe is prepared for cuts,edits and a general bashing about.: Whilst each scene often references others they are all self contained and could technically be played in any order. It makes me think of Pornography a text Simon Stephens wrote knowing it would be put through the mill by its director Sebastian Nubling. I mention Pornography to Jorge and (after the obligatory ‘confusion with hilarious consequences’) he confirms it’s a comparison others made after seeing Overdrama. Is Thorpe writing with a similar awareness of his director? ‘Chris doesn’t bother writing a straight play for me, he says I’d only change it about anyway’ Chatting in Bairro Alto, Thorpe confirms ‘I’m happy for Jorge to do what he likes with my text’ adding with a wry smile, ‘Not that he’d ever need my permission’ This writer suggests that he likes that mala take the responsibility out of his hands.
He may not have final authorial control but Thorpe is still treated with an acute love and respect by his Portuguese collaborators. Bernardo Almeida and Miguel Fragata (actors I meet on Revelação – but more of that later) were both in Overdrama, which they speak of with an earnest admiration. It’s a sentiment shared by all the actors who have worked on Thorpe’s texts. It’s important to note that he is the only playwright mala work with. After a period of working with classic plays mala voadora now principally create work through what we call ‘devising’ in the UK. They will use multiple texts, some non theatrical, and improvisation to create most of their work. So why work with this English writer? Does his Englishness have anything to do with it? I think of other British writers who find their work done so often in other countries, sometimes more than the native writers of that country. The response from both Chris and mala is that it’s not about working with an ‘English Writer’ but rather just a writer. A writer the company like. Fair enough. Though there is still the issue of translation:
The first rehearsal I attend is Chris’ last on this show. The entire cast and creatives sit around a table in the Comuna Teatro. Lights shine through the windows of the old french school, planes descend for landing over head and everyone is looking at Chris keenly: ‘It’s the idea that when they feel the presence of god it is just the collected belief of those around them.’ Everyone nods, Thorpe has articulated an idea which may have been confused in translation. Manuel Poças, the company producer, seems to have done an amazing job with translating Dead End into Portuguese but there are ideas in there which even in the original English are complicated and clarification is needed. Jorge sets the tone: ‘In term of translation let’s not try to solve problems now but just understand the meaning with Chris.’ This minimizes (but doesn’t eliminate) prolonged periods of groping around for the right Portuguese. At one point ‘a speck of guilt’ becomes ‘a chick-pea of guilt’ Chris laughs ‘I like it’ but perhaps it’s not quite right.
[I wonder if this questioning means less is taken for granted than it might be if being rehearsed in the UK. Actors/Directors might assume they know what is meant by any given word and not think to question it. Furthermore every writer’s language is their own and time has to be taken to understand it; When that language is literally a foreign one it becomes a practical necessity to question it, circumnavigating any sense of attack or criticism. Maybe.]
With questions about translation and meaning done we’re back to the director’s guillotine. True to what he said in Bairro Alto, Thorpe takes the suggestions of cuts in his stride. Responding to them rather than fighting them. Having said that, he does make one final plea before he leaves: ‘Can we keep my story about the golden horse?’ (The answer is probably not, no, desculpe)
The morning at the end of a late night and Chris is flying home to the UK. He won’t be able to see the premier of Dead End, he’s a busy man and in fact has never attended the first night of any of his plays for mala. He’ll see it in January and will see Jorge before then for the 11 hour performance of Story Map (mala voadora and Third Angel) on 14th October. As Jorge is heading to bed and Thorpe is heading for the door, the two embrace and say farewell for now. The Manc and the Lisboans, it might sound odd but this is a symbiotic relationship which feels obvious and which has plenty more projects confirmed in the years to come….