Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Park Theatre, review: ‘Big ideas in sharp script’

Yuriri Naka in Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes. Picture: Idil Sukan/Draw

Yuriri Naka in Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes. Picture: Idil Sukan/Draw - Credit: Archant

Daniel Everett is the kind of guy to scream and shout: ‘Alleluia’.

It is 1972: he is both missionary and linguist, preparing to go into the Amazon jungle to convert the Pirahã tribe.

He is advised by his sponsoring supervisor at Mission HQ that “they have to be made lost before they can be found”.

At first this feels like a Friday night faith youth club production: relentlessly optimistic, rictus smiles and lashings of frothy coffee afterwards.

But gradually you realise you are watching a very clever piece of storytelling with sophisticated stage craft.

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The set is sparse with a few endlessly recycled props: a rope held at arm’s length by the cast catenaries, map like, into the course of the Amazon. Minutes later, it is the prow of a river boat.

In several laugh-out-loud scenes, Everett, played with a wonderful combination of thought and energy by Mark Arends, works to learn the Pirahã language and win the tribe’s souls.

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Gradually he realises they have no concept of numbers or time – they live in a continual present (cue the rope to explain verb tenses), have a totally uninhibited attitude to sex (“Fancy a tug?”) and no word for worry. They have no creation myth and their grammar doesn’t allow for recursive discourse.

Everett must wonder if he’s stepped into a Garden of Eden.

These indicators lead him not only to question his own faith but also Noam Chomsky’s theories of language – what it is that separates us from beasts.

In a debate with an American linguist (played with a tour de force of fast talking and assured erudition by Rachel Henshaw), he argues about the concept of being human.

The ending is sad and, at only 90 minutes, the play is too short.

It deals in big ideas and room should have been found to better explore Everett’s loss of faith, and the tricky relationship between civilisation and people in the developing world.

A terrific play with a razor sharp script and fine acting. Prepare to pay attention.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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