Theatre Bubble Review of Don't Sleep There Are Snakes

It seems unfortunate for simple8 that they are the second company in a month to bring a performance about a western man integrating himself into an indigenous South American tribe and discovering key philosophical ideas about himself and others. Yet it would be counter productive to instinctively compare Don’t Sleep There are Snakes, based on the autobiographical account from Daniel Everett, to Complicite’s recent turn at the Barbican, at least not at this juncture. Don’t Sleep There are Snakes exists entirely within its own, far more tangible space, with its own faults and accomplishments.

Tonally, the show seemed slightly disconcerting, Missionary Daniel Everett’s arrival at the Piraha Tribe certainly seemed like an immersive and dangerous experience, his foreword mentioning the time his wife and children had severe malaria related illnesses and the despair that came with those moments. Yet simple8’s show never seemed to carry the same bite – the ensemble in their simplistic, primary and secondary colours, creating a toothless Brazil – even during Daniel’s times of danger we never felt wholly worried for our protagonist. The tribesmen, formed by the ensemble, seemed oddly inauthentic – speaking in English and dressed in casual clothes felt also slightly jarring. It’s clear what directors Sebastian Armesto (who, this reviewer is happy to note, is already being immortalised in a reaction meme), Hannah Emanuel and Dudley Hinton were trying to do here – break down perceived cultural barriers and make it easier to access these individuals on a visual and oral level, but considering modern social power structures (where we, as western audiences, have been part of the reason why indigenous cultures have had their lives and homes repeatedly destroyed), it seemed off-note for English-speaking actors to portray them as they were. Of course – the reasons for this became far more obvious as the show progressed, but the strange tone did not felt wholly justified.

Fundamentally, despite its setting, this wasn’t a show about indigenous tribes, but one about the philosophical and religious transformation of Everett. Arriving in blazer and blue shirt alongside brown smart shoes, Everett felt like the lovechild of the anthropologists of the 1970s with a distinctly Geertz-ian mannerism permeating through Mark Arends’s performance. Everett’s experiences were as important as those of Geertz or Levi-Strauss – using anthropological examination and experience to reflect not only on Piraha culture but also that of modern audiences. For Everett this manifested itself in the ideas of language and temporal understanding. The Piraha, through the absence of recursion in their speech, symbolised a refutation of the idea of a universal genetic disposition towards language that had gripped linguistic theorists. It was a form of poststructuralism thinking emblematic of the linguistic turn, the works of Derrida or Foucault, but here played out with fantastic clarity on stage. Where else to examine the idea of language than in a theatre? It was in these debates, about half way through the performance, that the show sprang into a new lease of life.

The other temporal examination was carried off with equal aplomb. Simple8 succeeded magnificently here in showing the parallels between religious belief and the beliefs of the Piraha culture – for the piraha there is only the immediate experience – the knowledge of what is visible, not what was, or what will be. It is a liberating and intoxicating perception that, tragically, has been done away with by modern conquest and dismantling of Piraha life. It again is perfect for theatre where audiences themselves are subjected only to an immediate experience – as soon as a character is offstage, they too ‘disappear’. It was a marvelous touch and showed exciting ingenuity. To then place this in a religious context only added further food for thought.

Though delving into the Amazonian rainforest, the show was discourse on our own perceptions of reality. It may have been scrappy and tonally inconsistent in places, but the ideas conjured by simple8 were fundamentally enthralling. Their ensemble work, as impeccable as ever, made the show lilt forwards with reassuring clarity through the series of intense philosophical debates. The use of rope, creating both the contours of a plane before transforming into the snaking bends of the river, being a particular highlight.

As an epilogue, perhaps, it feels necessary to bring the show back to Complicite’s The Encounter. Everett’s story felt startlingly familiar to that of Loren Macintyre, disentangling our ideas of temporal space and providing us with a counternarrative or an alternative explanation for the lives we lead. Both end with the writer being fundamentally and unwillingly divorced from the community he had so come to love. To compare the two is certainly no bad thing, but the modern obsession with these Amazonian ways is an intriguing phenomenon; almost a reaction against the postmodern and a driving need for an alternative.