· Culture · · T. Joana Rebelo

Filipe La Féria

«I don’t look to the past because I miss the future»

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Arriving at Rua das Portas de Santo Antão, the atmosphere is embroiled in familiar music. Everything becomes clearer when, out on the street, the words of the famous Amália echo: «Cheira bem, cheira a…» [Amália’s famed song about the wonderful smells of Lisbon]. Exactly, it smells like the Politeama theatre. It stands there, imposing, with classic features of such beauty. A breath of fresh air in the midst of Lisbon’s bustle. Going up the stairs, we come across a space that sets us thinking and, without noticing it, our senses are on alert. Mirrors, statues and lamps imbued with refinement. Smiles that welcome us, pamphlets that attract us and posters that remind us of the fleeting nature of time. Memories bathed in gold, which bring to mind Eunice Muñoz, Maria Callas and so many others who marked the course of the Portuguese theatre history. That space, once walked on by Mário Soares and Natália Correia, emanates greatness. But these thoughts vanish when we spot Filipe La Féria. Here he is, with a broad smile and hoarse voice, opening the door to his office and his heart. What ensues is a conversation rich in content, which would certainly last for hours, if La Féria's schedule allowed it. Since you’ve come this far, allow yourself to know what this brilliant Portuguese director has to say.   
P. Nuno Almendra
At the age of four you moved to Lisbon. What’s left of the child that grew up in the Alentejo?
Everything is still there. I think I am still that child. The Alentejo, even if we run away from it, never runs away from us. I am very attached to the place where I was born. In fact, I have my loved ones buried there, and I have a property there. Many memories reside in that property. It’s not by chance that I have the Sound of Music greenhouse there, the mushrooms from Alice in Wonderland... Much of the scenery from my productions is scattered in the open air. Even so, I need both the Alentejo and Lisbon in my life.  

When did you realise that you would dedicate a large part of your life to performing arts? 
Always. I was born with the feeling that reality doesn’t exist. I have always lived between fantasy and reality. Ever since I can remember I’ve thought that the human being itself has a very theatrical part. I remember listening to the conversations of the women in the kitchen, the stories of the ancestors, the liturgy of the church... Even then the magic of theatre was in me. 

Have you always thought of yourself as different from others?
I’m a bit of an extra-terrestrial, I confess. I live in a very intense way. I like to provoke people, to provide... There’s nothing worse than living in stagnation, being indifferent, living a ‘vidinha’ (little life). The Portuguese are often inclined to live their ‘vidinha’. You have to make a huge effort not to be mediocre, to be different, to be extra-terrestrial.  

Many people don’t know this, but you made your debut as an actor on RTP, with the play A Páscoa. Do you want to tell us about this beginning of your career and your transition to the role of director?
I did A Páscoa, yes. An extraordinary text. But before that I had already stepped onto the stage at the National Theatre with Amélia Rey Colaço, in a show commemorating Gil Vicente. There was Palmira Bastos and all the crème de la crème of Portuguese theatre. But I was a character, I went in mute and came out silent (he laughs). The role of actor used to go in parallel with that of director, but for a long time I was only an actor, with an award-winning career. I belonged to the best theatre companies: Teatro Nacional, Teatro da Cornucópia, Teatro Experimental de Cascais... I was lucky enough to play good roles, with extraordinary people. In fact, what has been my greatest privilege in life is having met, through the theatre, absolutely incredible people, not just actors, but also personalities, such as Almada Negreiros, Natália Correia, Lagoa Henriques, in short, people who have marked me for life.

«We have to make a huge effort not to be mediocre»
P. Nuno Almendra
Do you think that theatre is the stage for freedom?
Freedom is a word that has almost no meaning because it is so overused. The truth is that I have always been free, but I have paid for my freedom. I work without subsidies, I have no support from the state, I have to fight alone... This is all paid for by hard work. I was born with the soul of a fighter, a fighter who has no rest (he laughs). I believe that, when it comes to life, what you need is love and, in fact, I feel it when it comes to theatre and the mystery that is inherent to it. 

Is it dissatisfaction that makes a good artist?
No. To be a good artist, you have to have talent. You’re either born for it or you’re not, no matter how many good schools you attend. I, for example, have had good teachers, in Portugal and abroad, but the way I express what is in my soul is fundamental. This is not only true for an actor. As a director, I write the plays, I do the sets and the costumes, so I end up giving my all to the theatre. 

Who is your greatest muse?
I have had many. All of them are and none at the same time. Something that I consider unrepeatable is the success of the musical Amália. She asked me to do the musical. It was seen by millions, including millions in Europe. I remember that the premiere was unforgettable, with the audience screaming, all packed into one place.   

Did you foresee that the musical would be so successful?
No. The day before, I thought my life would end (he laughs). In Portugal, everything that is different is criticised. The Portuguese public is always suspicious, they like to speak ill. For example, Anglo-Saxon people have enormous admiration for their artists, even when they get old. The Portuguese aren’t like that. One day we’re taken for geniuses, the next we’re rubbish.
P. Nuno Almendra
Is success in Portugal always unpredictable?
We can’t cling to success. I live to express myself, so that, within my little importance, I can provide happiness and change the mentality of the audience. If it leaves even one question mark, it’s already extraordinary. I don’t live for success.  

As the curtain falls, is it the applause that leaves you with the feeling of «mission accomplished»?
The mission is never accomplished. We have a life to live and so it is necessary to live it, facing it with courage and always aware of its finite nature. As the curtain falls, so too one day everything will fall. The miracle that is life also ends. Sometimes with applause; other times without.  

With the new streaming platforms on a high, how do you get the audience off the couch, making them come to the theatre to watch a play?
Theatre is an experience that can’t be compared to social media. It is something unique, that is done eye to eye with the audience. There are no tricks, you don’t repeat yourself, every day is different. It’s not like cinema, that you can change and edit. That’s why it’s a world that has existed since the ancient Greeks and has accompanied the history of humanity. The mystery of the world was communicated to the constellations through acting. Therefore, theatre has always been an act of love. The soul is given to communicate with the viewer. 
You experienced the time of the Salazar dictatorship. Can you identify the big differences between the way of doing theatre before and after the 25th of April Revolution?
Before, good theatre was done, with good actors. There was a great national theatre company and an opera company. Not today. This happens because of the lack of interest on the part of the political parties. Culture is directly linked to education, and therefore education has been fading away. And so, we have to follow the cultural level of the public, so that they understand our plays. But, going back to the question, before the 25th of April, there was censorship. Today, there’s an economic censorship, that is more sophisticated. I notice that some words have been so sacralised that they lose their meaning, like the terms «freedom» and «democracy». 

The Politeama is nowadays a stage, above all, for memories. Would you like to tell us the memory you cherish most?
All of them. Or better, the next one. I don’t look to the past because I miss the future.

Tell us about Cinderella, the project you are currently working on. Will the character be just as we know it or will it have a La Féria touch to it?
The character is completely original. It's a play that will stage 300 performances, in which the actors play up to six repetitions a day. Schools are coming from the north and south of the country to see Cinderella, leaving the theatre packed. 
In parallel, there is Revista. A real success, because history is approached through humour. It begins in the monarchy, and always follows the timeline of Portuguese history. And, in fact, the great strength of theatre is to tell our history. I think that in Portugal we are guilty of doing too many translations, actors pretending to be Americans... Like everything in life, theatre has to be localised in order to be universal. We have to draw on our identity first and then we can make it universal.

«In Portugal, for most actors theatre is navel gazing»

What have you added to Portuguese theatre?
I don’t think there have ever been so many people seeking out the theatre. With the Amália musical, for example, there are an estimated six and a half million spectators, in addition to the 200 other shows already performed. I transmit emotion, truth and showmanship. And, in everything I do, I always keep an extract from Fernando Pessoa’s poem in mind: «To be great, be whole: nothing / of yours exaggerate or exclude». So, to communicate with others, we have to give ourselves entirely.  

How did you face the times of lock down, away from the stage?
It was very difficult. I had one show that endured, Espero por ti no Politeama, which was often performed by two dancers instead of ten. I had to adapt. In the 21st century, we are realising how we are still in the Middle Ages. We understand that an epidemic can be so brutal that it can reduce us to nothing. That insignificance that we have in the face of the universe. Man is the most terrible animal in nature, that’s why he has already beaten the other animals. He is the one who knows how to kill from a distance. The lion, for example, gives its body to kill. Not us, we are hypocritical animals and, at the same time, the most intelligent. 

What path lies between dreaming and making things happen?
Work. Blood, sweat and tears. My master used to tell me that an artist needs 95% work and 5% talent. I agree. 

Who would Filipe La Féria be without the theatre?
He wouldn't exist. I couldn’t even live without it. I could, perhaps, have been a writer, I’ve liked writing since I was a child. I even collaborated in the Diário de Lisboa Juvenil and won prizes. 

How would you like to be remembered one day?
In life, everything is forgotten. Eunice Muñoz died and today almost nobody talks about her, for example. I’m talking about her, because I always pay homage to her in Revista. The week they die they are talked about, but afterwards... So, I don’t think about the idea of being forgotten. Life is insignificant and we must have the humility to look at ourselves as Camões once said: as «this tiny bug of the earth».  
Joana Rebelo
T. Joana Rebelo
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