It requires considerable skill to take what is likely a meticulously planned performance and make it feel spontaneous and conversational, to address a packed theatre and make the space feel intimate.
Performer Tiago Rodrigues – the artistic director of Portugal’s Teatro Nacional D.Maria II – does so with casual and consummate ease, improvising quips and chatty asides, weaving his magic over us without us noticing. There is no pomp, no artifice, no grand preamble. He launches right in, inviting audience members down to the stage to learn to recite a poem by heart. No coercion is necessary — 10 people swiftly volunteer and fill the seats.
Rodrigues begins with a story about the deep impression a Dutch TV interview with novelist, essayist and philosopher George Steiner makes on him, and from this, a cascade of other stories about writers, thinkers and books follow: about Boris Pasternak and his secret code, about Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451; about oppressive regimes, and about resistance through the retention of stories and memories.
Seamlessly, at the same time, he feeds a poem, line by line, to the 10 on stage, helping them to memorise it so they can recite it by heart (you’ll need to see the show to find out which one). He puts them at ease, conducting them like a choir, encouraging them to repeat their lines over and over until they are able to recite it, together, in its entirety. They succeed admirably.
The story that interweaves and connects with all these others and the poem being memorised, and which lies at the heart of this show, is his grandmother’s. She loves books, and Rodrigues brings boxfuls of them for her to read in her nursing home in a small Portuguese country village, until one day, she tells him to stop. She is losing her sight. She asks him to choose one book for her to learn by heart so she can always carry it within her, even once she has lost the ability to read.
In turns funny, melancholic, thought-provoking and inspiring, By Heart shows us how stories connect us to the memories that live on inside us. How, once we have memorised a poem, a book, a story, it becomes part of us.
It is about the power of the shared story and its importance in the resistance against those that seek to destroy those stories. And it is a moving tribute to his grandmother, a love ode to books and the profound importance — in this world of disintegrating truths — of keeping what is contained within them alive.
By Heart is being presented as part of Adelaide Festival at The Odeon Theatre, Norwood, until March 10. See more Adelaide Festival stories and reviews here.