Show: La Strada
Society: Richmond Theatre (professional)
Venue: Richmond Theatre
Credits: By Frederico Fellini. Directed by Sally Cookson and Composed by Benji Bower. Kenny Wax Ltd in association with Cambridge Arts Theatre & Bristol Old Vic present The Belgrade Theatre Coventry's Production.
Author: Ned Hopkins
Perfomence Date: 27/02/2017
Ned Hopkins | 28 Feb 2017 11:49am
Not to be confused with Lionel Bart’s musical La Strada – which lasted for one performance on Broadway in 1969 – The Belgrade Theatre Coventry’s take of the iconic 1954 Fellini film is currently on tour before arriving at The Other Palace for a season in the summer. And what a truly inspiring piece of theatre it is!
Following on from her recent re-imagined Peter Pan and ground-breaking Jane Eyre at the National Theatre, La Strada further endorses Sally Cookson’s status as one of our leading and most innovative directors. Indeed, Cookson may be bracketed with Emma Rice as the two people, of our own times, who have most successfully developed the total theatre methods first established in the UK by Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop sixty years ago.
Usually, plays are subservient to the text. In this kind of physical-visual theatre the words and movement are normally developed by the company through improvisation supported by the full range of performance skills – albeit grounded in a clear story. It requires a focussed leader to coordinate and edit everyone’s contributions. Significantly, this show has a ‘Writer in the Room’ rather than a ‘Book by …’
Cookson and Mike Akers remind us in the programme how sometimes ‘you must be prepared to kill your darlings,’ although, apart from simplification towards the end, the plot sticks closely to the film. A tale involving three travelling entertainers and set in the country of Commedia dell’arte musdt have sat up and begged to be staged in this way. Why has it taken so long? Sorry, Lionel.
La Strada is picaresque – the title translated is ‘the road’. It helps to remember that the original was filmed during the depressed period of Italy’s history prior to its economic revival in the ‘60s. A grimmer-than-Grimm fantasy, we are constantly reminded how poor everyone is, yet especially in this version, there are still the simple joys of life to celebrate.
The principal character Gelsomina, a naïve young woman, is sold by her mother – as her sister Rosa had been before her – to be the assistant of the brutal Zampanò. Rosa ‘did not make it through the winter’ but may possibly have been killed by Zampanò, who has a nasty habit of fatally damaging people as well as the chains he breaks from his body in his act. Thus, fairytale meets harsh reality, and the scene when the scales finally fall from Gelsomina’s eyes breaking her spirit and mind, is devastating.
Audrey Brisson is a delight as the Chaplinesque Gelsomina. She possibly projects more of the sturdy tomboyish, life-affirming aspects of the character than did Fellini’s muse (and wife) the great Giulietta Masina – whose performance, though luminous on camera, today comes across as somewhat sentimental. Similarly, Stuart Goodwin does not spare us any of Zampanò’s cruelty and amorality. This makes especially effective the final scene when he movingly conveys his sense of loss and awakening self-knowledge.
The third corner of what becomes an emotional triangle, is the Marceau-like Il Matto ‘The Fool’ whom the pair meet on their travels. The arrival of Bart Soroczynski brings more magic and delightful choreography to the show, not to mention his skills as a versatile uni-cyclist! Soroczynski successfully conveys both the charm and the irritating quirks of the man, teasing Zampanò and driving him to violence when he fears Gelsomina’s growing affection for him. After the interval, he leads the whole cast in an enjoyable if gratuitous knees-up which subtly belies the tragedy to follow.
As in the film, the production fuses poetry and realism and creates, largely through movement, some haunting images such as the recurring tides-of-life sea waves – and the wheels that move us on and on. Katie Sykes provides a stage-within-a-stage on which the story comes alive. It is furnished with just two bleak huge telegraph poles – regularly used as climbing frames by the cast – and a white sky cloth. This is symbolically decorated with dangling chains and ropes to remind us of our involuntary dependency of each other, the restraining power of human need and how valueless life is without someone else to share it with – if only to constantly abuse them.
The whole company narrates the opening and closing of the show, does tricks, sings, dances, provides sound effects, plays all supporting roles – and a range of musical instruments. The well-integrated songs and atmospheric musical moments (good work from composer Benji Bower) keep the show on its feet and the pervading melancholy at bay wherever possible.
Prop-wise, the company transforms a handful of beer crates and three used car wheels into everything that’s required, from a motor-cycle van to a wedding banquet. One of many haunting moments is the presentation of a convent scene by decorating the stage with static cast members posed on different levels holding lit candles. The excellent lighting design is by Aideen Malone.
Like most timeless works of art, the effect of the story is enhanced by leaving some issues open. Is Gelsomina really as simple as she makes out? Is Zampanò a psychotic sociopath or just an amoral control freak? Why is Il Matto so fatalistic and a victim of his inability to judge his effect on other people? The play shows us: we make up our own minds.
La Strada retains its power because we recognise these people with all their ambiguities; they are still alive and well today – if not necessarily on the road with a 5-Star show!