An actor aiming to feel emotion to produce a character’s feelings cannot be on a stage directed by Antunes Filho, aged 82. Since 1978, the oldest Brazilian director still alive turned against the realism clichés that he himself embraced during his immediately preceding phase, which was underscored by the opening of the play Macunaíma, his historical adaptation of the work of author Mário de Andrade.
It was precisely this passage that, as some Brazilian theater theoreticians recognize, formed the entryway of Brazilian theatre into contemporaneity. The critic Sabato Magaldi, in his book Panorama do teatro brasileiro [Overview of Brazilian theatre], for instance, advocates that the Macunaíma staging was the main candidate for this landmark.
Restless by nature, Antunes is not satisfied with any position that he has already achieved. In each of his works, he tries to outdo himself. He says that he is now facing one of the greatest challenges of his career: staging William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “I don’t know when it will open, because I don’t want to be rushed; I want to have time to pay homage to the theatre with this staging,” he says.
This effort is arising exactly when his latest production is being reviewed by a TV Sesc project, thanks to which his last three productions were filmed: Policarpo Quaresma, Foi Carmen and Lamartine Babo. The TV versions were aired in January.
However, what turns Antunes’ work, to this day even, into a pillar of almost everything that is staged in this country? First, this legacy is based on avoiding the techniques of realism. Imitating life is not the prerogative. Recreating it seems to make more sense.
At the time when Macunaíma first opened, the cinema was articulating the tools required to show the naturalist dream on screen, although Glauber Rocha (1939-1981) himself and other avant-garde film directors put their talent to work as a counterpoint to mimesis.
Theatre was being reinvented, therefore, in the pursuit of unknown languages, given an awareness that something had been lost in parallel with the advent of the seventh art, and not only in Brazil. Experimentalism swept over the world, inspired, above all, in the work of certain European artists.
Antunes tells us that from the very start of his career in the 1940s he complied fully with the methods of Stanislavski, as if they had been the gospel. The latter was a sort of father of naturalism. To this day, the methodology of this Russian director and theoretician is to be found under the arm of any student of the performing arts in the main schools of the world.
One of Antunes’ greatest successes before he recreated his own style in the 1970s is based on the technical fundaments of Stanislavski’s theories. Detective Story (1959), by Sidney Kingsley, recreated scenes from a police station, groping with the verisimilitude typical of the cinema. The production’s leading characters is a chief of police whose ethical beliefs are adjusted by a corrupt environment. The cast included Jardel Filho, Mauro Mendonça and Laura Cardoso, among others.
It is the style of Detective Story that Macunaíma rejects. The stage experiment inaugurated the Antunes Theatre Research Center (Centro de Pesquisa Teatral de Antunes), which still exists and which has Sesc-SP funding. The production resorted both to the critical distance proposed by Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright and theater director, and to the stylization of the gestures espoused by the expressionists.
As Sebastião Milaré reminded us in his Hierofania, a study on the pathway and development of Antunes’ creation method, the elements of the scene in this staging seemed to “boil down to newspaper pages and long stretches of white fabric, which were transformed into forests, rivers, so many things.”
Ever since, Antunes experienced a veritable creative surge, which resulted in productions such as Nelson Rodrigues, o Eterno retorno (1981), Romeo and Juliet (1984), and Nova velha história (1991). In the latter, the director even created a specific language for the play’s characters. Obviously, the audience could not understand what was being said, but followed the narrative line of an absolutely familiar fable [Little Red Riding Hood].
In the pursuit of his own language, Antunes’ path was then affected by major international influences, such as the works of Tadeusz Kantor (Polish set designer and theater director), the dance of the German choreographer Pina Bausch, or of the Japanese dancer Kazuo Ohno and his post-nuclear catastrophe Butoh.
Antunes’ obsession with efficient voice work for the stage (to this day, when he mentions the voice of an actor, Antunes points to the nape of the neck, not the mouth, as the main source of sound) led to historical stagings of Greek tragedies, such as Fragmentos troianos [Trojan Fragment] (1999) and Medeia (2001). His productions yielded actors such as Cacá Carvalho, Luís Melo and Giulia Gam.
Today, Antunes is poring over Hamlet, but is not yet sure of his path for this classic by William Shakespeare, the English playwright.
He says that most likely, other stagings will precede Hamlet, given the complexity of the play whose main character is the prince of Denmark. While Antunes does not make up his mind, he observes the empty stage of his research center, where, over the entrance doorway, a small notice reads:
“One absolutely cannot say that there is nothing on an empty stage, on a stage one might step onto improvisedly. To the contrary. There is a world overflowing with elements there. Or, better said, it is as if from nothingness an infinity of things and of happenings can arise, without one knowing how or when.” This text is by Kazuo Ohno.
Scenes from Policarpo Quaresma, 2010, shown on TV Sesc in January, and from Macunaíma, 1978 staging and a landmark of contemporary Brazilian theater
1. Emidio Luisi / Collection GEDES SESC Memórias, 2010
2. Paquito / Collection GEDES SESC Memórias, 1984