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Sidetrack's Pessoa: a dream life

Keith Gallasch

It’s unusual, in the theatre or cinema, to encounter the dramatised life of an artist you might have heard of but whose work you’ve not experienced. It’s usually the other way around–the well known artist’s glory and travail travestied, little attempt made to convey the creative process and too much done to synch it with his or her assumed psychological progress. In this case, Sidetrack’s The Bookkeeper of Rua dos Dourados, we get a life of Portugal’s great modernist author, Fernando Pessoa (1888-1936), but on his own terms.

Pessoa is primarily represented by one of the many personae who populate his writings. In other words, this is no literal attempt to convey a life, but is an expression of it, drawing directly on the writer’s own fantasies as realised in the character of an intensely private bookkeeper who reckons the inner life to be richer than the public one. "Because I am nothing, I can imagine myself to be anything…", "…the play I am watching is myself…How many people am I?" This is a man who revels in a tedious job for the oblivion it offers ("Am I ever awake?"), spies on his boring fellow workers and imagines remarkable things for them, is wary of the flesh (kissing is "slimy"), caustic about social life and gnomic about reality: "we are stories telling stories…nothing."

His mother’s death when he is one year old, his father’s suicide when the boy is 3, and a flash of anger at the recollection of toys taken away, suggest the sources of his condition, but the play focuses on outcome not cause, celebrating the feverish inventiveness of a remarkable imagination that takes apart social habit and religion with a mix of aphoristic whimsy and epigrammatic, even Blakean verve. Scenes alternate between office and bedroom, with the bookkeeper’s dream-world soon consuming both, the office desk transformed into a pirate vessel which he commands with a sadistic, imperial drive. This has been "a night of sublime sensation" for him, but of the senses not touched but dreamt–the power and the pathos of living by the imagination alone. The bookkeeper crowns himself with a tiara and spins into the night.

Arky Michael plays Pessoa’s persona with a gruff directness, just enough of the poet, and an escalating obsessiveness, making the man’s apparent ordinariness frightening. Carlos Gomes’ direction is brisk and inventive with a carefully graded progression from the spoken poetry of interiority to the stage mechanics of a full blown fantasy. The Gomes-Don Mamouney collaboration on the script is the source of much of the production’s strength. Intrigued, now it’s time I read Pessoa for myself.

Sidetrack Performance Group, The Bookkeeper of Rua dos Dourados, adapted from the writings of Fernando Pessoa by Don Mamouney & Carlos Gomes; director, designer Carlos Gomes, music Hope Csutoros, performers Arky Michael, Adam Hatzimanolis, Georgina Naidu, Silvio Ofria; Sidetrack, Sydney, Aug 21-Sept 14

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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