Writer: Sebastian Armesto, Dudley Hinton and simple8
Director: Sebastian Armesto, Hannah Emanuel, Dudley Hinton
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Imagine you’ve been living in the Amazonian jungle for some time observing an undiscovered tribe; they’ve shared their culture with you, begun to teach you their language and you’re beginning to feel as though you belong. Then one night after a local trader offers them alcohol in return for labour, you hear them outside your tent drunkenly plotting to kill you – what would you do? This and many other dilemmas were faced by Daniel Everett during his time with the Piraha people in Brazil now imagined for Park Theatre audiences in a new play Don’t Sleep There are Snakes.
Dan is a missionary and linguist off to South America to spread the word of God among the indigenous people. He is expected to deliver converted Christians by the Mission leaders and reminded to ‘make them feel lost before they can feel found.’ But as Dan spends time with the Piraha, the simplicity of their lifestyle enchants and fascinates him which not only sets him at odds with his employers and the world’s leading language experts, but proves a fundamental assault on his faith.
Don’t Sleep There are Snakes is essentially a series of anecdotes narrated to the audience by Dan in one 90 minute burst. And while these stories are insightful, charming and, at times, very funny, the overall message is less clear. It’s partly about refreshing challenges to Western preconceptions of faith, linguistic construct and the interpretation of individual experience, but it also hits on politically relevant topics such as the erosion of cultural identity and tolerance of other “norms” – yet all of this comes across as impressions only rather than clear purpose that drives the story.
As the unfolding of one man’s crisis of conscience this is skilfully handled by the small cast, using minimal props and modern dress to convey distant times and lands, and it is to their credit that the illusion never falters. Simplicity is the watchword and a single length of rope is used to create the aeroplane that takes Dan to Brazil before moments later converting into the undulating path of the Amazon River.
The cast are excellent with Mark Arends leading the way as Dan, enthusiastic on arrival, keen to learn before sinking into weary frustration as he fails to make the same impression on the tribe as they do on him. The Piraha, played by Christopher Doyle, Rachel Handshaw, Yuriri Naka, Emily Pennant-Rea and Clifford Samuel, are fantastically innocent, offering the feel of one people but carving out individuality within the community. Some of the best, and funniest, moments are the exchange of language and writers Sebastian Armesto, Dudley Hinton and simple8 have a stream of hilarious interchanges that keeps the action moving.
Unusually for such a play there is a 10-15 minute long ‘debate’ between Dan and a leading linguist which explores the nature of grammar in academic detail, and while interesting as a discussion it is a risky inclusion which only tangentially adds to the story. While the meaning of Don’t Sleep There are Snakes is open to interpretation, the individual scenes and characters are engaging and enjoyable. Perhaps we’re all supposed to learn something from the Piraha by worrying less and tolerating more.
Runs until23 April 2016 | Image: Idil Sukan, DrawHQ