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Treasure in them there hills

A remarkable theatre company has created high art in an impoverished, conflict-battered Rio favela

From the roof terrace of the Nós do Morro theatre in the Vidigal favela, Rio de Janeiro looks like the sparkling tropical paradise it would be in a perfect world. Ipanema Beach is just visible in the moonlight and the shanty towns stretching up the hills are spangled like Christmas trees with blue and orange street lamps. Inside the hot, airless auditorium the audience is settling in for a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Babies snuffle, teenagers laugh and fidget. People greet one another with easy smiles and handslaps. This is not a rarefied, high-class crowd - it is drawn from a community in one of Rio's many poor and conflict-battered districts.

Community theatre, in this case, does not equal wobbly amateur dramatics. The actors are young and beautiful, the staging slick and inventive. With no sets and the simplest of costumes, Verona is created before us - complete with walls, statues and towers - using the bodies of the performers alone. The romance between Silvia and Valentine, played by Roberta Rodrigues and Thiago Martins, is genuinely funny, human and touching in the hands of this remarkable theatre company. By the end, actors and audience alike are sweating in the sauna-like heat, but the spell of the drama is unbroken until the curtain call.

"When we started over 20 years ago there was no culture of theatre in the favela," Guti Fraga, founder and director of Nós do Morro, tells me over a glass of evilly strong cachaça at an Ipanema restaurant the following afternoon. He is a lean, middle-aged man with a smooth, bald head and an intense but irreverent manner. Having worked as a travelling performer and a journalist, he came to Vidigal in 1980 and, inspired by community theatres he had visited in Brooklyn, New York, started the company.

"When I came to live here it bothered me to meet so many very talented people with no opportunities," he says. "Nós do Morro started with nothing but a philosophy: to practise real solidarity, irrespective of social class, and to create work of excellence. The quality of the work is the most important thing."

Initially the project was for the people of Vidigal alone, but over the years it has established a reputation across Rio and further afield. "People from the rich areas of the city will now come here to go to the theatre," Fraga says. "They might never have ventured to a district like this before." In 1992 Fraga met Cicely Berry, a coach for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and so began a working relationship that culminated in Nós do Morro coming to Stratford-upon-Avon to appear in the Complete Works season in 2006. The group returns to the UK this October to perform Two Gentlemen at the Barbican.

The really big break for the company came in 1999, when it was approached by the directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, who were looking for young actors from the favelas to cast in a feature film. The project went on to become City of God, Brazil's most successful film internationally. The child actors from Nós do Morro created some of the hardest-hitting scenes in its graphic, violent depiction of the evolution of the drug trade in a Rio favela. Their lives also provided its inspiration: the film raised the profile worldwide of the increasingly bloody armed conflict that was swiftly engulfing urban ghettoes such as Vidigal.

"When Nós do Morro started we didn't see guns in the favela," says Fraga. "Now it's normal. I have lost a lot of people very dear to me. It is not something I can talk about." The smile disappears from his animated face, and he looks away. "Many times during rehearsals we have heard gunfights start outside between the police and the drug traffickers. We all have to get down . . . and then we get up and carry on rehearsing. We have become very resistant. It is calm now, thank goodness - until the next incursion."

For the actors of Nós do Morro, the theatre company has provided a much-needed outlet for their creativity as well as an escape route from the tough existence in the favela. For some, it has even paved the way to stardom. Roberta Rodri gues appeared in City of God and subsequently featured in one of Brazil's biggest soap operas. "City of God opened up a new profile for actors in Brazilian drama," she says. "You can now see actors on TV who look like normal people from the favelas. You see a mix of races and social types, where before it was very selective."

Thiago Martins, who also starred in City of God's excellent spin-off television series, City of Men, agrees. "It has made a difference both personally and in a wider sense. I see myself as equal now, intellectually, if not financially," he says. "We are like the representatives of the favelas in the outside world."

Both actors continue to work with Nós do Morro and to live in Vidigal, though Martins has bought his mother a new house in a safer area of the favela. "Before, we were living in what you might call the 'Gaza Strip' of the favela. Our windows were blown out and our water was always going. I thought my mother deserved something better," he says. For Rodrigues, living in Vidigal is "both a choice and a necessity. I don't want to leave my parents and the people I grew up with, or a way of life I respect. "

"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is at the Pit, Barbican Theatre, London EC2 (8-18 October). More details:

Alice O'Keeffe's novel On The Up is published by Coronet. She is a literary critic and former arts editor of the New Statesman. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe, or on Instagram as @aliceokeeffebooks.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008