Interview with Pedro Penim

Photo: Tomás Monteiro
Words: Cláudia Pinto

“Everything end, everything”

Pedro Penim wrote and directed Casa Portuguesa [Casa Portuguesa], a new play that reflects on what kind of house we are building as a society. In the corridors of the D. Maria II National Theatre, we speak with the director, who celebrates one year at the helm of the National Theatre.

It reads on the stage “everything ends, everything”…

Actually, I read this sentence while vacationing in Italy. I saw it in a church, and I thought it was very beautiful. It certainly had a more religious side, of course, which does not exist in this show. But there is the idea that something was painted hundreds of years ago and remains, even though the phrase says that everything ends… I found the tension between the things that simultaneously time ends up erasing and the things that remain curious. And the play is all about this. With ideas and structures that even not are part of our lives and society, and the way we understand ourselves as Portuguese and human beings. At the same time, it lingers on the idea that time soothes the edges and erases things. Some things are lost, others carry on. As soon as I saw this sentence, I knew I wanted to have it somewhere in the set. It is not exactly the image I saw because on stage we have it graffitied in an abandoned house, but the idea is there… That everything that is said, that is being produced, all the ideas that we consider rock-solid… tend to disappear.

In what phase is the construction of this Portuguese House?

What phase is it? I would say a very positive one. We opened, and there was a wave of energy around the show. We have sold out houses, which is great… the feeling of the public rushing to a show.

For the actors, there is also this side of themselves taking charge of the show. We spend a lot of time rehearsing and my role is almost that of a maestro conducting everything that goes on. As I am also the author of the text, there is a directorial side more apparent. But after the opening day, the responsibility is slowly transferred to the actors because I can no longer go on stage. They are making it their own and that is a very beautiful moment.

You approach several themes in this show, but you focus especially on how we evolve as a society and our individual role in that construction. Does all of this come from the various texts you consulted to build this play?

Yes. The references pointed very much in that direction…

And what image of the House are you trying to convey to the audience?

I want each person to be able to build an image for themselves – naturally, starting from their history and their library; but, also, their version of the Portuguese House. Because it is very diverse, this image. These great titles, great monuments… when we talk about Portugal it seems something gigantic, but then each person is a piece of this gear.

There is also the need for critical thinking, which is something that I always try to include in my shows so that people can take themes, questions with themselves, some sort of questioning that makes them reflect. Theatre can serve this purpose, and it is great to see this encounter between thought and theatre taking place.

Ultimately, it was never my intent to provide one unified and monolithic image of the Portuguese with this play. It gives clues, it sometimes sets some traps so that some people can think about their history. It speaks a lot about our contemporary history as a country (not exactly in a glorified manner, but, on the contrary, of the things that have gone less well for us). And how we confront ourselves with this heritage, which is sometimes quite difficult. The play also attempts to be reconciliatory, to give some hope; without hiding the fact that our history is a history of violence, just as family histories often are, and that we must face this violence so that it can stop happening. And, equally, a play that allows us to talk about the future and about the Portuguese houses of the future, where this balance will be happier.

Is there a projection of what families can be?

Yes. It is a hopeful piece in the remaking of structures, taking into consideration people’s identities and the way they express themselves, without imposing models that somehow no longer serve us and that have even caused some traumas. If these models are rethought to be more permeable, plural and conciliatory… we will all be happier in society. And, simultaneously, to be politically aware that our individual and collective (as a nation) actions point towards a choice. And it must be faced head-on. Just like houses: architecturally speaking, structures have changed over time.

There is a sentence that is said in the play that goes along with this: “the house is not only architecture, nor a shell. It is also a moral, a psychology, an idea that what fills it is the people, and it is these people who transform it”. It ends up being a metaphor. How do we occupy this geographical space that we call Portugal? How can we take into our hands the destiny of what we are?

And who are we as Portuguese?

It is difficult. We are a defined geographical territory. But it is a territory home to several passages: some people arrived yesterday; some people have been here for many years; there are generations of families… and none of this should be hierarchical. Nobody has the right to the land; nobody has the right to say what Portugal is or what it should be. The people who are here, even those who are passing through, or those who don’t speak Portuguese… Who are the Portuguese? It is this amalgam of references. I believe that being Portuguese is also very much related to the language we speak because it allows us to call upon poets, stories, songs, culture, memories… And this can be connected with the territory where we are, which should be inclusive rather than exclusive.

The wardrobe for this show is very special. Both clothes and footwear were designed by Joana Duarte, Behèn’s creator. Can you tell me more about this process?

The idea of having Joana in this project was very clear. I needed someone to make costumes that could convey an idea of tradition and Portuguese handicraft (with its very own but varied identity), which is something that Joana stands for. At the same time, she can, and very well may I add, recontextualize all this heritage (by recognizing its existence and worth) putting it at the service of an idea.

I believe Behèn is already in the future, almost as if she created futuristic outfits, although the pieces still feature a giant echo of the past. Behèn creates masterpieces.

And I think it is also a metaphor for what this National Theatre is: a house of memory, of history, of many stories, of many plays and many people who have passed through here. But at the same time, it is a house that projects itself into the future. And Casa Portuguesa (the show) also intends that.

This is your first show as director of the D. Maria II National Theatre. How were these first months at the helm of this ‘monument’?

The beginning was tough. There is nothing that can prepare us for this role, we learn on the job as we get to know different projects and dossiers. People don’t realize how many projects and activities are carried out here. And this beginning was all the more difficult because I did not apply for the position; I was named by the then Minister of Culture, and the whole preparatory part only happens on the field. Now nine months have passed, and I feel much more at ease. The team received me with open arms: I was very lucky with the team that works here. They are people who are committed to building something that is not just public service. Although the public mission is very relevant, these people want to build an eminently artistic project. And that makes me feel even more at home.

What is the future of theatre?

Theatre should be more in tune with its time. It is an art that is very fond of rummaging through the past; it is constantly chewing on the classics, producing what has already been written. And well! There is a quite valuable and profound heritage. However, concerning other arts – and being an art of the here and now; an art form that comes to life every night in front of the public and has this very immediate side – it could be a bit more in line with its time, and it is often always two steps behind compared to other arts.

So, my wish is to see the theatre occupy the present time, even as it lets itself be influenced by its millenary history. But let it not forget that it is an art of the now. Unlike cinema or plastic arts, which are more defined and finished forms, with specific functions, theatre is a live art, of people breathing the same air in the same room. And I feel that sometimes theatre doesn’t take good advantage of that.

Do you want to project this house into the future?

Yes, to blend in the tension between the past and the future. We cannot be a house that only presents classics or only highly risky things that people do not know well yet.

Being able to programme in this house enables this opportunity: receiving people who come to the theatre because they want to have an experience whilst recognizing the theatrical art as they have been taught. But, at the same time, with the promise that here they can see something that has never been seen before. And I think that art is above all this idea of anticipating the future, which is, in fact, the motto of our programming: to glimpse new forms and ideas for making art.

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