Sopro review: Memoir of an invisible woman
Dublin Theatre Festival: The backstage view becomes a way of seeing the world in Tiago Rodrigues’ elegant piece of metatheatre
Sopro: Tiago Rodrigues has created a gentle portrait of one theatre, built in nostalgic moments
“I see the world as I see the theatre,” explains the protagonist of this elegant meditation on art and life by the Portuguese theatremaker Tiago Rodrigues: “From behind or from the side”.
That oblique perspective comes with the job, belonging to the prompter of Teatro Nacional D Maria II, Christina Vidal, a background figure who is here thrust, with great reluctance, into the foreground. Or so it seems.
Although actors address us, in stilted poses and projected voices, their words originate as whispered instructions from a shuffling, epicene figure dressed in black. This, we come to realise, is Vidal, an unobtrusive figure now calling the shots. If that upends the theatrical order of things, Rodrigues prompts a greater upheaval, where rushes sprout from Thomas Walgrave’s clean set of stage boards as though nature had reclaimed a disused building.
Sharing anecdotes from her 40-year career in the wings, Vidal has been a proudly discreet observer since the age of five, her professional philosophy built around self-effacement
Against this foretelling of oblivion, the prompter, already mostly an anachronism, is presented as the memory, heart and lungs of the theatre. (Sopro is the Portuguese word for breath.) Sharing anecdotes from her 40-year career in the wings, Vidal’s is the memoir of an invisible woman, a proudly discreet observer since the age of five, with a professional philosophy built around self-effacement. Even her character is passed between three onstage performers as though trying to escape notice: “A compliment,” she says of her business, “is a failure.”
A gentle portrait of one theatre built in nostalgic, subservient moments, Sopro is nonetheless guided by such failures: a “never-ending” dramatic pause in 1984, when she realises she is whispering prompts to the actor’s deaf ear; a chronically unreliable Vershenin, in Three Sisters, whose actor “would assassinate any character who crossed his path”; the stunning realisation that her theatre’s adored first director is fallible, first with a missed line onstage, then in a missed breath and, finally, in missed cancer treatment for the sake of rehearsing a show.
That poignancy touches on a soft irony: in the theatre, the prompter ought to know what’s coming next, but in life we never do. In Rodrigues’s metatheatre, on the other hand, which can become overladen with self-reference, the mechanisms of theatre are an answer for everything. Through several false endings (“Our director doesn’t know how to end things”) all ambiguities are confirmed, all loose ends tied up, as though the audience too is being rather heavily prompted. Vidal’s sidelong perspective might have been more instructive, providing us with a little more space to breathe.