By Heart

Tiago Rodrigues (right)
Credit: Magda Bizarro

By Heart: PuSh International Performing Arts Festival

At Performance Works

January 20 and 21

Posted  January 20, 2017

Portuguese playwright and actor Tiago Rodrigues evokes disparate writers – Shakespeare, George Steiner, Ray Bradbury, Joseph Brodsky, Boris Pasternak and others – while teaching Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 to ten volunteers. “I won’t be manipulating,” he promises them. Pause. “But if I do, I will do it gently.”

Gently is the operative word and Rodrigues is true to his word. He’s unassuming, funny, generous and passionate.

The creative spark for By Heart are George Steiner’s words, “Once ten people know a poem by heart, there’s nothing the KGB, the CIA or the Gestapo can do about it. It will survive.” And so, to ensure Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 lives on, Rodrigues travels the world’s stages, teaching ten volunteers each night to commit the sonnet to memory. Why Sonnet 30? The reason, an event in Pasternak’s life, may take you close to tears.

“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/I summon up remembrance of things past/I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought/And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.”

Woven throughout the hour-and-a-half performance is the story of Rodrigues’ grandmother Candida, an avid reader who, in her 90s, began going blind and asked Rodrigues to choose a book that she would then memorize – keeping it, therefore, in her heart forever.

While the volunteers struggle – and they do – to learn their lines, we struggle with them, willing them to succeed, embarrassed for them when they fail. Seated on wooden chairs lined up on the stage, at first they simply responded verbally to Rodrigues; but eventually their hands begin to move, some heads are bowed in concentration, they lean forward toward their ‘conductor’ who, just as a conductor of an orchestra, draws them out. Rodrigues’ single deep inhalation and a gesture is the learner’s clue to repeat. Again. And again.

Tiago Rodrigues (right)
Credit: Magda Bizarro

Rodrigues is not only intelligent, humourous and political, he’s deeply, deeply passionate and that passion infects the audience. I was startled to find that at the end when, indeed, Sonnet 30 was performed by ten strangers on the Performance Works stage, I was so moved. So moved by the recitation, so moved by the power of the spoken word, so moved by Shakespeare and Pasternak, so moved by the notion that once memorized, the written word is inviolable. What I considered drudgery in school, having to memorize poems (“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks” or “Out, out brief candle”) was the highest form of praise, the highest celebration of what informs my every day: words strung together to enlighten and move me.

By Heart, produced by Portugal’s Teatro Nacional D. Maria II and presented by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, is for word lovers, for lovers of poetry and Shakespeare, for lovers of freedom of expression. For everyone.