Preview: Salina, the Last Vertebra

Production director Ana Texeira tells us about her version of the play

In this bleakest of winters, Brazilian company Amok Teatro present a riot of colour and culture, setting award-winning French author Laurent Gaudé’s play Salina ablaze. Amok’s version, Salina, The Last Vertebra, tells of a rebellious, mysterious orphan girl rescued and raised by a tribe. She falls in love with the tribal leader’s younger son but is forced to marry his cruel, violent older brother. When she leaves her husband dying on the battlefield she is banished from the tribe, which keeps her son.

Salina then drives her other – mysteriously begotten – son to vengeance, and he assassinates the ageing tribal leader responsible for his mother’s woes. This sparks a fratricidal duel until the two men band together to fight a rival tribe. Meanwhile, Salina scatters the leader’s vertebrae in the desert, since mythology dictates that bodies buried in pieces will never know peace. In fact, company and production director Ana Teixeira explains that Amok’s addendum, The Last Vertebra, refers to ‘symbolically reconstructing this African body that was scattered in a great diaspora around the world.’ Salina has no heroes, only blinding hatred and ultimate forgiveness, but it is a rich tapestry of African tribal and ancestral culture. And even though the dialogue is in Portuguese and Yoruba, the strong visuals, music, and dance transcend language. Teixeira tells Time Out about Salina’s history, inspiration, and the unusual Amok Teatro.

On the material

'Brazil is a mestizo country, made up of different races, with a huge presence of Afro-descendants. But we share the same identity; we are all Brazilians and we speak the same language. Salina gave us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a culture that helped form the Brazilian people, and to offer black actors great roles, as strong characters living strong passions. The story presents universal themes of hatred and forgiveness within the context of an ancient, potent and unknown African civilisation; there are elements of Greek tragedy in the cycle of death and revenge, comes from cathartic surrender. But at the same time, we feel an oral culture linked to the memory of a continent, with features typical of African epics such as the presence of ghosts, the supernatural, and elements of nature inseparable from human destiny.'

On Salina’s local elements

'Candomblé is a religion originating from the Yoruba people from Benin, where the Orixá are gods, or personifications of the forces of nature. Salina features Orixá songs and dances. The congado is a way of life that has arisen within quilombola communities, originally founded by fugitive slaves, which have been places of cultural resistance for the Afro-Brazilian people since the period of slavery. These communities have deep ties with their ancestors and preserve a strong religiosity. The living through drumming, which keeps them alive, but it’s through storytelling that the community retains its identity, linking people from the past, present and future. This is why “Time” is the greatest deity in African religiosity, and orality is the basis of the African soul.'

On audience expectations

'Audiences can dip into the ancestry of the African people, and can live great, universal, and deeply human emotions. They will see hatred manifested in its wildest reaches, and will understand what it takes to achieve forgiveness. With Salina, audiences see a people and a tradition hidden throughout the history of mankind, with a rich culture and civilisation [nearly] annihilated by centuries of European colonisation and slavery, but one that has resisted through its culture, brilliance, and powerful humanity.'

On the company

'Throughout Amok Teatro’s 18 years, we have explored different scenic and staging languages, but we always approach theatre as an art form, never as a copy of reality. The naturalist European theatre does not interest us; we don’t believe that it responds to the concerns of our complex contemporary world. We need poetry and strong symbols as a counterpoint to a consumer society that is increasingly devoid of meaning. We need humanity in profusion, to fight against indifference and to not let us become automatons.

Amok Teatro works with culture in permanence; it’s not only about producing shows. We research actors’ education and have a six-month training period for actors coming from all over Rio de Janeiro. The company has precise body, vocal, and emotional methods inspired by traditional theatrical techniques, as well as techniques used in trance states. After training, we look for different ethnic groups and traditional African and Afro-Brazilian cultural manifestations, and study their dances, songs and rhythms. The name Amok is of Malaysian origin, which means a mad and unbridled fever that culminates in death, and can be attributed to a collective phenomenon. It is a strong and disturbing word, as we imagine the theatre needs to be.'