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‘By Heart’ illuminates potency of words as resistance

By Zoe Grams

Tiago Rodriguez

Tiago Rodriguez

If you could read only one book for the rest of your life, which would you choose?

This is the question playwright Tiago Rodriguez’ grandmother struggled with as she lost her eyesight. A lifelong reader, the poorly educated yet highly intelligent woman would devour boxes of books brought to her. Upon learning she was going blind, she decided to learn one book by heart “so she could read when she couldn’t see any more.” She asked her grandson to choose the book.

How the Portuguese theatre artist granted such a poignant request is at the core of ‘By Heart.’ An ode to the power of memory — and the power of words to assail oppression of all types — the play visits Vancouver as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival January 19-21.

Rodriguez may be the only cast member, but he’s not alone on stage. Each evening he invites 10 audience members to join him under the lights to learn a poem by heart.

“It’s a piece that changes a lot each night, even in the same city,” he enthused. “It’s an adventure that we live together — the characters, the sets and the rhythm of the piece. It’s 10 unknown people who become a collective and who have to deal with having to learn a text by heart — with difficulty but also power.”

The communal effort pays tribute both to his grandmother’s ambitious task and the political potency of memorization. As writer George Steiner said, “Once 10 people know a poem by heart, there’s nothing the KGB, the CIA or the Gestapo can do about it. It will survive.”

First created in 2013, ‘By Heart’ showcases Rodriguez’ intellect, expertise and emotional deftness, qualities which propelled the 39-year-old to the lauded role of artistic director of the Teatro Nacional D. Maria II in Lisbon.

His depth of research is clear and, amidst poem recitations, Rodriguez “traces the labyrinth (he) had walked through while preparing the piece.”

But this research process was “totally chaotic.”

“Once you have one author, they give you five or six different rivers which flow outside of them — other authors in literature — and each of them have four or five also. Even if you take the worst book you can find, inevitably it will take you somewhere. I went with the flow.”

The result includes ideas mined from geniuses such as Ray Bradbury, Marcel Proust, Osip Mendelstam and William Shakespeare; shocking examples of sonnets used as dissent in the face of Stalin’s regime; stories of political exiles keeping their work alive with impromptu recitations in dingy kitchens; and strange coincidences that encapsulate Rodriguez’ journey.

His relationship with Steiner is one such delight. Rodriguez reached out to his influence to ask which book he should choose for his grandmother. His dozens of letters never arrived. It was not until two years after the premiere of ‘By Heart’ that Steiner would learn about the play.

When the Rodriguez finally met Steiner, the elusive author exclaimed, “It’s a good thing I didn’t get the letters. I would never be able to tell you which book to choose. There’s no such thing as the last book, only the next book.”

Such provoking statements seem a natural part of Rodriguez’ world, one that is complex, beautiful and possible to change. As the playwright himself explains, “I believe in the power of people — the power of people who collect around words.”