Isabelle Superb!

The excellent Portuguese theatre showcase Festival de Almada was illuminated by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert in the role of Mary Queen of Scots, writes Mark Brown

As Scotland gears up for the biggest cultural jamboree on the planet, it’s good to be reminded that other summer arts festivals are available. One of the finest, in my experience, is Festival de Almada, Portugal’s major programme of international theatre.

Hosted in the small city of Almada and, across the River Tagus, in Portugal’s beautiful capital city, Lisbon, the festival was the brainchild of the late, great theatre director Joaquim Benite. Now ably directed by Rodrigo Francisco (who was, for many years, Benite’s trusted assistant at Almada’s Municipal Theatre), the programme has just completed its 36th edition.

The most anticipated show at this year’s festival was Mary Said What She Said, a “monologue in three parts” written by acclaimed American author Darryl Pinckney for an imagined Mary Queen of Scots. Starring the great French actress Isabelle Huppert and directed, for Parisian theatre company Theatre de la Ville, by the outstanding American stage director Robert Wilson, the piece delivers on its promise abundantly.

Presented in the superb theatre of Centro Cultural de Belem in Lisbon, Wilson’s production is characteristically stylised and modernist. Huppert, costumed in a tastefully understated period dress, performs on a naked set which is illuminated by stark ever-changing, abstract images on the back wall.

The simplicity and conceptualism of the staging serves to concentrate the mind, not only on Huppert, but also on Pinckney’s remarkable script (which draws upon Mary’s letters). Huppert plays the piece in French (which was, of course, accompanied in Lisbon by Portuguese supertitles); but I had forearmed myself with Pinckney’s original, English-language text.

The play is structured like a modernist musical score, such as you might expect of Leos Janacek or Anton Webern. The performance is accompanied throughout by a wonderfully dramatic and diverse musical score by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi.

Pinckney’s Mary expresses herself, in both live and recorded speech, in fragments of fear, bitterness and defiance which vary and repeat like a musical composition. She speaks her anger at her betrayal, abandonment and incarceration in a startling outburst: “I hate France... (Adieu, adieu, ma France.) I hate Scotland, but most of all do I hate England.”

Huppert performs Mary in her various states – from the calm resentment of her memories to the frenzied urgency of her final days – in a style that is breathtakingly varied, bold and unapologetically theatrical. In the final section, the actress (who, at 66 years, is some 22 years older than Mary Stuart was at her death) performs a stunning, frenetic, modern choreography in which brilliantly quick, angular movement propels the Queen towards her end.

Wilson’s audacious theatre-making attracts intelligent, fearless actors. He said of Huppert recently: “She can think abstractly. If I would work with Meryl Streep or any of the [American] actresses that we know internationally, it would be impossible for them to think formally, abstractly the way Isabelle can.”

Wilson skewers Streep (and her Hollywood contemporaries) on his praise of Huppert; which, surely, is a luxury he has earned in more than 50 years of creating avant-garde theatre. He is correct, of course. The outcome of his collaboration with Huppert is a piece of large scale chamber theatre (a Wilsonian paradox if ever there was one) that is worthy of any great theatre showcase, including our own Edinburgh International Festival.

Elsewhere in the Festival de Almada programme, Alessandro Serra’s Macbettu (performed in the gorgeous Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II in Lisbon), truncates Shakespeare’s Scottish play and relocates it to the Italian island of Sardinia. Performed, Elizabethan-style, with an all-male cast and in the Sardinian language, it is a work of tremendous, bleak imagery, fine acting and affecting music and sound.

The commedia dell'arte-style witches are performed with great skill and humour, but seem like a distracting entertainment, rather than an integral part of the drama. More damaging still is the virtual erasure of the sexual tension between Lady Macbeth and her vacillating husband, which is the beating heart of the play.

The French piece Saison Seche (Dry Season), which played at Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite in Almada, is a courageous and direct work in which seven young women conduct the ritual destruction of a symbolic, masculine prison space. Although it is impressive in visual, technical and performative terms, its crotch-grabbing, public urinating stereotypes of inevitably “toxic” masculinity are tired and disappointing.

Edinburgh Fringe favourites Familie Floz (from Berlin) presented Dr Nest, which they played here last year to such acclaim that it was the 2019 festival’s “Show of Honour”. A typically excellent work of mask and physical theatre, this touching and humane piece, set in a psychiatric institution, lost some of its intimacy in being performed in the large, outdoor auditorium of the Escola D. Antonio da Costa in Almada.

Such is the diversity of Festival de Almada, which, this year, boasted work from countries as diverse as Argentina, Spain, Belgium, Norway and, of course, Portugal itself. This ever-impressive showcase remains a gem in the Portuguese cultural crown.