Tiago Rodrigues : Portrait of a Portuguese High Achiever

A few months ago, Tiago Rodrigues, one of the most successful artists of today’s European theatre, was appointed as director of France’s very select Avignon Festival. Bold move for such high stakes, as the festival has been making French drama history and set the expectations for  every theatre season since its foundation in the late 1940’s. Never before had the nationally treasured festival been directed by a non-French artist, and yet this decision was unanimous : the Minister of Culture, the board of directors and the Mayor of Avignon were all in agreement, Tiago Rodrigues, starting next year, would start his 4-year term. One question remains : who is this mysterious foreigner who won the French over?

First, it is worth noting that, although Tiago Rodrigues is currently the artistic director of Lisbon’s National Theatre (one of the most prestigious venues in the country), he worked in France and made a strong impression there many times, if not every time. And I think that is what is truly remarkable about him, he never plays safe, but somehow never fails to impress, which can only mean one of two things : either he is extremely lucky, or he is a true visionary.

Tiago Rodrigues started as your average talented director/actor : he studied theatre at his country’s Conservatory, joined a Belgian collective, then moved on to found his own company, and finally became the National Theatre’s director. But he didn’t stop there— why would he?— and in 2014, he presents a meta-theatrical play, By Heart, in Paris, reflecting on what it is to memorise a text. Every performance consists in inviting 10 people on stage, and asking them to learn « by heart » a Shakespeare sonnet, engaging them in a theatrical and human experience which relies on a risk. However this risk pays off, and results both in poetically moving performances, and in a huge success. There begins his journey in France revolving around two divergent yet complementary characteristics : a depiction of drama as a universal experience, and a unique, personal and poetic approach through meta-theatrical plays.

A year after that, he is praised at the festival he would eventually become the director of in Avignon, and comes back to Paris for yet another success, the literal take-over of the Théâtre de La Bastille. For 68 days, he occupies a theatre at the centre of the French capital and with a collective of French and Portuguese artists, he experiments, writes, creates. From that moment, one thing is clear : Tiago Rodrigues, even though he writes in his native language, is an international artist whose second language is drama and that, for him, is universal. Despite the audacious and seemingly reckless aspect of this initiative, Tiago Rodrigues is, at that point, famously and undeniably talented : the take-over is welcomed with thunderous applause. 

The 2019 huge success of Sopro, one I actually saw with my own eyes, was a more subtle take on working in theatre through the compiling of the prompter Cristina Vidal’s anecdotes. The introspective mise en abyme of that woman’s career, spent in the shadows, gave a humble tone to a performance that captivated the audience by being precisely the opposite of grandiloquent. Tiago Rodrigues showed that he is aware of every component of what makes a performance and that he is able to appreciate the history behind the art. Every element of the performance and the staging, the disparate weeds growing unevenly between floorboards, the dim light, the beautiful language (with surtitles), the breaths of wind (sopro) slightly moving the curtains and the music turned Sopro into a mystical and nostalgic experience. In my opinion, that particular play was a turning point in Tiago Rodrigues’s career, because he achieved to reconcile every paradox that defines his vision : universality and individuality, nostalgia and eagerness, humility and greatness.

Sadly, Tiago Rodrigues doesn’t perform in the UK— yet—, but if you happen to go to a European country where he does perform (France, Switzerland, Portugal, Italy), do try and go see his latest play. And if you go to France, although he won’t be in charge for this summer’s edition of the Avignon Festival, he will present a play like he did last year (La Cerisaie) and will not disappoint. For now, I’m sure the current director Olivier Py has planned a brilliant programme including, as always, the best and most ambitious directors’ original productions.

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