The premise of Tiago Rodrigues' By Heart, playing at Performance Works as part of this year's PuSh Festival through this evening, is deceptively simple. Over the course of the performance he will teach 10 audience members to learn a sonnet by Shakespeare by heart: they will learn the first four lines together and declaim them as a group; thereafter each of the volunteers (of whom there were more than enough eager participants last night) is responsible for learning one remaining line, beginning with the first line of the second quatrain and moving through to the last line of the poem's concluding couplet. The performance will not be over until the sonnet is enunciated from beginning to end by the assembled group, and one of the physical delights of the show is to watch Rodrigues conduct his volunteers like a choir, inhaling deeply to announce the beginning of each recitation and using his arms to move from person to person, or to indicate that a line should be repeated.
The sonnet Rodrigues teaches the group is Sonnet 30, "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought," and it has been chosen for a reason: the great Russian writer Boris Pasternak, facing almost certain arrest and imprisonment, spoke his own translation of the verse during Stalin's show trials in 1937 and the assembled citizens of Moscow rose en masse afterwards and repeated it back to him. It was, as Rodrigues tells us, a powerful statement against tyranny and censorship: literature, learned by heart, will always elude state control, and this is one of our most profound forms of resistance. The latter sentiment Rodrigues supplies to us via the philosopher and critic George Steiner, whose discourse about this very topic on a television program Rodrigues has himself committed to memory, and from which he quotes at length throughout the performance (indeed, images of Pasternak and Steiner are printed on either side of the t-shirt that Rodrigues wears on stage). Paralleling the focus on memorization as a form of protest and resistance, which Rodrigues illustrates with many anecdotes from history and excerpts from literature (including a bravura recitation of the opening pages of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451) is the story of Rodrigues's grandmother, a cook who was a voracious reader and who, as she was going blind, asked Rodrigues to pick a book for her to memorize so that she might be able to re-read it in her mind when she could no longer see.
Having raised the stakes in this way about what the on-stage audience members' real-time exercise in rote learning has come to symbolize--at once a political statement of freedom and a personal tribute to Rodrigues' grandmother--by the end of the performance, when Rodrigues conducts his choir one last time, we are on the edges of our seats willing each of them to get it right. And there was certainly lots of drama when one of the volunteers seemed to blank completely on his individual line. But with help from Rodrigues, as well as some of us not on stage, he eventually got it out and the poem continued to the end, which felt like a collective exhalation, a breath that said we will be alright if we continue in this way together--even as newly repressive regimes sweep to power across the globe. Yesterday, above all, it was reassuring to attend a performance like By Heart and know there are some things that can still escape demagogic pillorying via Twitter.