Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes

Reviewer's Rating

Disappearing…disappearing…disappearing… disappeared. I left Park Theatre the other night with a smile on my face. I had spent 90 minutes watching an engaging, entertaining story brought to life by the inventive simple8.  Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes is not something you will hear during the performance, but it is the title of Daniel Everett’s book the play is based on.

Dan – as he is presented in this performance and not at the book – is a missionary and linguist off to South America, alone, to spread the word of God among the Pirahã (roughly pronounced ‘PEE-ra-ha’). He is expected by the Mission leaders to learn their language, translate the Bible and leave a happy and content congregation behind, when his mission is completed; and is also reminded to ’not forget loo roll’ and to ‘make them feel lost before they can feel found.’ He finds himself among a carefree tribe that have no word for worry, are sexually uninhibited and believe in spirits that come through the forest and in only what they perceive with their own two eyes. Not only does he not know their language but he is stuck with people, who have no notion of maths and who frustratingly so – for conversion’s purposes – do not have a creation story in their culture! The simplicity of their lifestyle enchants and fascinates him. Dan slowly discovers that it is not only their life approach different, but their language as well challenges linguistic concepts held to be universally true. As his faith ebbs away, his conflicts with the mission leaders and the linguistics community peak.

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes is a series of anecdotes narrated to the audience at a swift pace by Mark Arends’s Dan, who amid the inevitable misunderstandings is bright and engaging, if not slightly naïve. He manages to keep the audience interested and dictates the pace of the performance, guiding us through this very personal memoir. The rest of the ensemble brings spark and life to the piece with their fluid and energetic acting shedding characters with ease as they treat us to a parade of Pirahãs, officious bureaucrats, polemic linguists and unmovable missionaries. Using minimal props – a length of rope doubling as the frame of the plane and the meandering Amazon – and no costumes at all, they manage to tell us Dan’s story open-heartedly without condescension and with wit.

Where one can fault the performance is the lack of clear message. Not exactly a linguistic or theological strife, not anthropology or ethics, not ecology; we briefly glimpse on the different parameters that a play could draw but we never dwell in any. The debate between Dan and the leading linguist, exploring the genetics and nature of grammar, dispersed with terminology, was not much of an issue for me personally, but it did not add anything to the substance of the play. It was more of a nod to the book and its controversies than an integral piece of the puzzle.

I watched and reviewed Complicite’s – The Encounter as well. Quite uncommon to have two performances tackling, let’s say loosely, anthropology. The storylines have similarities, they both provide alternatives or escapes to the Western way of life and they both feed on our fascination with the exotic, the mythic and the unspoiled other. Each left me in a completely different state of mind.