Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes Review

Park Theatre 23 March – 23 April.  Reviewed by Claire Roderick

Based on Daniel Everett’s book, Don’t Sleep There are Snakes is a wonderful voyage of discovery. Dan (Mark Arends – playing the fish out of water with a deft and light touch) is an earnest missionary and linguist sent to the Brazilian Amazon to convert the Piraha tribe and translate the bible into their language. He is told before he leaves that “you need to make them feel lost before they can feel found”, but instead of influencing the Piraha’s lives, he finds himself becoming more and more uncertain of his faith and values.

Christopher Doyle, Rachel Handshaw, Yuriri Naka, Emily Pennant-Rea and Clifford Samuel play various characters throughout the play, but their portrayal of the Piraha is delightful. The innocence and delight in life shines through, and their lack of inhibitions about sex provides great comedic moments. Arends’ face when Chris offers to tug his penis in the same way a British man would say “Pub?” to his upset friend is fantastic. The running joke about people disappearing doesn’t lose its shine, and when the reason for the words is explained, it makes you love the Piraha even more. The harshness of life in the jungle is brought home during one shocking scene involving a sick baby, and the pragmatic approach of the tribe challenges Dan’s more sentimental values.

Writers Sebastian Armmesto, Dudley Hinton and simple8 have Dan presenting his story in the same way that the Piraha relate their tales, with time “scrunched up” and using simple terms whenever possible. This works brilliantly, both to highlight the linguistic research Dan carries out as he tries and fails to convert the Piraha, and to show the way tribes are patronisingly viewed and treated. As Dan realises that the Piraha’s language is based solely on their experience, with no words for colour or tenses, Arends shows his turmoil and growing self-doubt, and he can only explain his theory by talking about what he has seen, leading to a frustratingly long winded and repetitive section set in a lecture hall, but I can see why this needed to be included.

The Piraha find the idea of suicide hysterical, and they have no word for “worry” (charmingly demonstrated when Dan tries to translate the song “Don’t worry, be happy”); so the horror of their culture and language being lost that Dan feels when the government takes control of the tribe, seen alongside their delight – “we have a television!”- provides a stark reminder of the vast cultural differences that will soon be lost.

The bare set grated at first, but as the beliefs of the Piraha become clearer, believing in only what they see, and living in the here and now, this was obviously a better choice than some hokey jungle set. The scenes where the cast provided vocal sound effects for the jungle were a triumph too, especially Dan’s noisy passage through the undergrowth on a hunt.

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes tackles cultural diversity, faith and belief in an uplifting but bittersweet play that keeps you giggling and smiling all night. A must see production.