[Review:] TROPICALIA ISLAND, Arcola Theatre, London.
This performance begins with an odd, two-part introduction. The first is a greeting by performer Charlotte Laporte who comments on audience members as they enter, telling them "jokes", or ridiculing them, before giving them one of three coloured cards which will determine their category for visa checks. This greeting I found to be completely impertinent with the performance. Laporte asks audience members debase and bewildering questions like if they look back at their faeces in the toilet after defecating... Perhaps this is to represent the infringement of privacy by immigration control offices, the link between such and this performance I will detail later, but there is such a thing as too much. I found her presence in the rest of the performance to be absolutely unnecessary, and her switch from gibing and dictatorial at the beginning to subservient, docile and dopy throughout the rest of the show was extremely strange.
The second greeting is far more fitting and successful in its comedy. It involves Leanne Shorely and Sophie MacArthur whose job is to welcome the audience into the performance space whilst performing silly yet humorous activities such as cleansing their shoes by pumping air onto them through a small plastic balloon inflator. Their absurdity communicated the comedy and content to follow very well and was much more pertinent to the material. Their campiness and vivaciousness were delightful and intriguing, a joyous welcome to the island. Even their plastic leaf skirts, contrary to Laporte’s highly questionable orange hi-vis jumpsuit, fed well into the themes of artificiality and over-exoticness.
Once the audience is seated, they are forewarned of a mysterious and powerful leader of whom they should be wary and respectful. This makes for a good juxtaposition when Fernanda Mandagará enters rather showily and exuberantly in a Brazilian samba costume, feather headpiece and all. Mandagará was very mesmerising throughout the performance. There were a few moments where her delivery could have been more fluid and smoother, especially in moments of [conspicuous] improvisation, but she was very good overall. As implied before, her assistants, Shorely and MacArthur, were just as endearing in their effervescent and cheerful ways. All performers had high energy, keeping the island alive, as it were. But just what the island was is a different story...
Mandagará is a fatherless Tropicalian but also a goddess, self-obsessed who used to be a dancer but is now temporarily the president until the new president comes back. There’s also a gorilla who wants to steal bananas, a seeming war going on beyond the performance space, another god, the real God, in the sky and a world-ending mud flood. This is a LOT for an hour's performance. Whilst I commend director Ramiro Silveira and, as the play’s writer, Mandagará for being able to cram so much content into such a small time-frame, and whilst I understand that this overwhelming storm of material is part of the show’s appeal, it makes for a very sloppy and incoherent script. If a performance is about everything, it ends up being about nothing.
This performance was very politically charged, though its politics were, again, too frenetic and were in need of a more clear-cut premise. This performance successfully breaks down the “western” ideal of the exotic exposes faults in not only Orientalist thinking but, most blatantly, the British immigration system. That the mud flood makes the Tropicalia Island one of three most powerful territories in the world is a good critique on the British Empire, along with many similar others, and the preference to one’s own kind and the distinction between Tropicalian and Tropic-alien is a very clever critique on modern racism and patriotic values and of visa regulations.
But then there's the war and the culling of the indigenous which complicates the getaway feel of the island and opens up a different discourse of the so-called poverty-stricken, barbaric and combative Third World. There is then an entire scene dedicated to explaining to the male audience members how to survive the sex-ridden streets, what to wear, how to act, where to go. This is a feminist narrative but also a feature that directly contrasts with the island’s traditional mating dance, led by provocative female dancers. There is a vast lack of clarity and direction in this performance. And what does any of this have to do with a rendition of ‘Copacabana (At the Copa)’? I would note as well that whilst the performance sets out to use Brazilian particularities as the ground for its material, other cultures, too, are stereotyped and represented in this performance, leaning towards borderline cultural appropriation.
Audience interaction and participation was a bold and, overall, successful move for this performance. Again, the first introduction is highly questionable, but the visa checks, banana handouts and sporadic interrogations were funny to watch. There was the danger, however, of the audience becoming a little too distanced from the material. That is to say that there is, yet again, an uncertainty in this performance: is it audience participation? Is it fourth-walled spectation? Or is it metatheatre, as found at the end of the performance when Mandagará reveals that it was all a show, that everything was fake and the world is not actually ending? A good breakdown of the exotic but a bad breakdown for structure and quality.
There are a few other elements that could do with some ironing out. The ending, for example: leave the stage! Rather than telling the audience that it is time to go and shooing them on their way, leave the stage and raise the houselights and cue them to go subliminally, instead; otherwise, it makes for an awkward ending but also destroys the world of the performance that you’ve spent the hour producing, however metatheatrical you intend it to be. And a last small note on the gorilla: the gorilla should have far more stage time, not only for the endearing quirkiness of an animal mascot and life-size puppetry but also because his murder does not feel as impactful with such little exposure.
“A whirlwind of a performance, entertaining and otherworldly yet in dire need of clearer focus, theory and direction.”
Photography credit: to Leandro Facundo.