Review – Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes (British Theatre Guide)

In the late 1970s, linguist and missionary David Everett went into the Amazonian jungle to take Christ to the Pirahã people and to learn their language so that he could translate the Bible, a language people had been trying to understand for 20 years without success. He lived in a Pirahã village at the mouth of the Maici River.
In 2008 he published Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, a book about the language and life of the Pirahã that draws on that experience. That book is the source for this fascinating play.

The Pirahã live in the moment, they know what they see and experience, not what is beyond that, they have no religion, no god, no numbers, no jealousy, no sexual possessiveness, no concept of sadness. Simple8’s presentation matches that simplicity with a bare platform stage and a blank brick wall, a model aeroplane, a rope and some sticks for their props. A rope becomes a river as the company marks its course and its tributaries with exemplary clarity, jungle sounds are all made by the actors.

A Brazilian trader says the Pirahã language sound like “chinchillas raping each other” but the actors speak straightforward English, no accents even, which makes it even more graphic when we know exactly how meanings are muddled. There is an hilarious attempt to translate a lively song the missionary has written (here he is called Dan; this isn’t a literal recreation). It is full of concepts that just don’t exist for these people. The way that they see things becomes a running gag as movement of someone leaving is described: “disappearing, disappearing… disappeared.”

Everett sees the construction of the Pirahã language as refuting the idea of a “universal grammar” so widely accepted by language academics. It lacks the structure combining a sentence within a sentence, the mirroring reference to things that linguists call recursive. (Have I understood that correctly? This play makes you want to find out more.)

The Pirahã are people who see dreams as being as real as waking life. There are bad snakes in dreams too, hence the title. They think a sickness is caused by stepping on a leaf from ”the upper layer,” from high up in the canopy, but there is no heaven there.

What does Jesus look like, they want to know. Dan has to admit, “I have never seen him,” so how can he exist. “We like you,” they say, “but we don’t want Jesus.” It is Everett whose faith starts to fade rather than turning the Pirahã into God-fearing Christians.
How will such culture survive? Even when set up in government reservations with television, there is a hint that their culture persists.

Packed with interesting ideas, Don’t Sleep brings to life a community with a beautiful innocence. With Mark Arends as the linguist and Christopher Doyle, Rachel Handshaw, Yuriri Naka, Emily Pennant Rea and Clifford Samuel as the Pirahã, this a stage full of real people, we see them, they are. They also change in a moment to doubling with never a doubt as to whom they are playing, as Brazilian traders, the staff in a visa office, members of Funai (the government’s National Indian Foundation that carries out its policies), Summer Institute of Linguistics missionaries and academics.

Enormously enjoyable, brain stimulating, this is really worth seeing.

By Howard Loxton