Ten audience members are invited to take to the stage and commit a sonnet to memory, in an at-times mesmerising exploration of literature, culture and heritage.
“There won’t be any theatre involved,” Tiago Rodrigues announces early on in this performance. And then, with a theatrical flourish, he announces that the performance cannot begin until the ten seats behind him are filled with volunteers from the audience. They will collectively learn a sonnet by heart, he informs us, at which point the show can end.
In between helping them learn their lines, Rodrigues takes us on interludes that explore the power of literature and the way that committing it to memory is one of the ultimate acts of love, as well as protest. He tells us about Osip Mandelstam, whose widow taught each of his poems to ten people, reasoning that this would be enough to prevent them being erased by censorship, and to resurrect them later. We learn about the librarian of Birkenau and biblical prophets, detour through the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451 and revel in an astonishing act of mass protest at the 1937 Soviet Writers Congress.
And wound through the entire performance, along with Rodrigues’ evident love of literature, is the story of his grandmother. A compulsive reader, she decided when her eyesight was failing that she would commit a single book to memory and asked Rodrigues to help choose it. It was a heavily responsibility and he poses the question to the audience – what would you choose?
Rodrigues himself recites extended passages from memory, a demonstration of skill as well as an example for the ten audience members ranged around him. Though they are true volunteers, who stepped onto the stage rather than being plucked from their seats, it’s easy to empathise with them as he cajoles and occasionally teases them while they learn their lines. To be fair, they’re in good company – he also teases Shakespeare throughout the performance.
It may not sound like the most riveting premise, but there are periods when the entire audience is holding its breath. Yes, we hope that the volunteers remember their lines, but Rodrigues also holds in front of us the possibility of our cultural heritage being taken away. It’s a terrible prospect, but one that has occurred in living memory. He shows us how using our memory can be a profound act of protest against the theft of cultural heritage and censorship.
But ultimately this is not just a show about memory; By Heart is about language and literature, about revelling in the beauty and idiosyncrasies of each. Rodrigues clearly holds the passages he recites dear, but as the show ends the point is not whether we remember the single poem learned onstage, no matter how beautiful it may be. Rodrigues wants us to walk away remembering to cherish the poems and stories that we love, to hold on to them and keep them close.
By Heart was performed at the Odeon Theatre on March 5
Tuesday, March 5 – Sunday, March 10
Adelaide Festival / Espectáculo