Life and language in the Amazon, adapted for the stage

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The book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, sub-titled “Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle” was published in 2009. It tells the story of missionary Daniel Everett’s experience living with the Amazonian tribe, the Pirahãs. But rather than Everett converting the tribespeople, they converted him. Actor and director Sebastian Armesto, founding member of Simple8, explains why the company was inspired to adapt it for the stage, premiering this month at London’s Park Theatre.

We’re thrilled to be at Park Theatre for the first time with this piece. What first attracted us is that it’s an ostensibly simple story: a man travels to an Amazonian tribe whose language no one has ever learnt. But it’s a story that deals with big ideas. As Dan, a missionary and linguist, immerses himself in the tribe’s language and culture, he realises it’s unlike anything he’s ever experienced.

With no words for numbers or colours, no tradition of nursing their young or caring for their sick, no habit of storing food, no creation myth, no religious beliefs, no leaders, no crime, and (great from a dramatic perspective) no ability to tell stories unless they are the result of personal experience, what Dan discovers undermines his faith, blows apart current linguistic theory and pulls apart his understanding of what it means to be human.

In rehearsals: The Simple8 ensemble cast for Don't Look There Are Snakes are Mark Arends, Christopher Doyle, Rachel Handshaw, Emily Pennant-Rea, Yuriri Naka, and Clifford Samuel

In rehearsals: The Simple8 ensemble cast for Don’t Look There Are Snakes are Mark Arends, Christopher Doyle, Rachel Handshaw, Emily Pennant-Rea, Yuriri Naka, and Clifford Samuel

It’s an adaptation of a book that relates a true story. If you want that account the book is available. But what we’ve tried to do is present the ideas – and suggest their ramifications. Our adaptation doesn’t mimic the Piraha (the tribe at the centre of the story), rather we’ve tried to present their unique outlook on the world. And Dan – the missionary and linguist who journeys from outsider to honorary tribes-person –relates his story directly, echoing the personal stories the tribe tell themselves.

Using simple 8’s aesthetic of ‘poor’ theatre (minimal set and props, and everything created by the actors to embrace the live experience) the show seeks to conjure up the planes, hunts and jungle of the Amazon, as well as the culture and feel of the Piraha, with nothing but a bare stage, a couple of chairs and a length of rope.

It’s hard to describe in brief and why I would urge people to come to see it. Like Complicite’s recent show The Encounter, it’s about travelling to the fringes of our existence in order to discover truths about our own humanity.

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes hopefully leaves the audience wondering whether they’ve been transported to the Amazon or whether the Piraha have been transported here; and shows an understanding of the world so at odds with anything else that ultimately, we can only question our own.

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes runs at London’s Park Theatre from 23 March (preview 22 March) to 23 April 2016.

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MyTheatreMates welcomes submissions from guest bloggers and other occasional contributors, including theatremakers commenting on aspects of their shows. Please email your suggestions to Mates co-founder Terri Paddock or submit them via our Contact Us page.