It was like being back in Toronto all those years ago; sitting, head in hands leaning against the railing of the second balcony at the old Royal Alexandra Theatre captivated by the magic of the theatre. But it was almost 50 years later, I was in Milano and I sat, head in hands leaning on the railing of the second balcony of the Studio at the Piccolo Teatro. And the magic of theatre - that magic that enthralled me in 1960, that set my life long love affair with the commedia dell’arte, was still as strong as when I was 13.
All those years ago I watched an almost fledgling company from Milano performing a 200 year old play in Italian to an largely English audience. There were no surtitles just a summary in the programme and the skill of Marcello Moretti (right) and the troupe to tell the story of that scoundrel Arlecchino as he hired himself out to two masters at the same time. But we laughed and applauded wildly and to this day I recall the joy that filled that theatre on a March Saturday afternoon in dull old Toronto.
Last night I watched Ferruccio Soleri (left), who assumed the role in 1964 after Moretti’s death, and members of the now world famous Piccolo Teatro tell that same story. It was in Italian, there were no surtitles and my language skills did not allow me to catch much of the rapid fire, and often dialect, dialogue. But once again I was the member of an audience in a theatre filled with laugher, joy and wild applause. About 1/3 of the audience were school children - often something that sets off “danger Willym, danger” signals - but, if rowdy during the intervals, their rowdiness was turned to roars of laughter and delight as they watched routines that were hundreds of years old when they were born. And though the production - or variations of it - has played over 2645 times in 300 cities in 41 countries since 1948, it was as fresh and as funny as if it were brand new.
Arlecchino, servitore di due patroni was one of Giorgio Strehler’s first productions after he, Paolo Grassi and Nina Vinchi founded Piccolo Teatro in 1947. His basic concept, though refined and adapted over the years, never changed: a troupe of 18th century actors set up their makeshift stage and perform Goldoni’s classic comedy based on characters and situations from the commedia. We watch them as the characters of the play on stage and on the sidelines as members of the troupe - doing darning, chaffing at another actor’s applause, providing sound effects for the opening of a letter, preparing for their entrances or just lolling. It also means we see the workings of the most famous lazzo (routine) in the play - Arlecchino serving dinner to each of his two masters.
This masterful piece of comic timing involves flying platters, jiggling jello, juggled soup tureens, at least seven bodies and at the centre of it all Soleri. Since Strehler’s death he has been in charge of recreating the master’s mise en scene and though he has remained faithful to the original he has made sure it is no museum piece. The wonder of it all is that at 79 he has still the ability - if not quite his previous agility - to be the centre of such a chaotic scene. And though he has performed the lazzi - catching the fly and swallowing it, folding and sealing a letter, shadow stepping - for over 40 years he has the skill to make it all seem improvisational. It was interesting to see that Enrico Bonavera, the actor playing Brighella - the role that Soleri played when I saw Moretti - has begun to play Arlecchino at certain performances. Though all the performers were excellent as their dual-characters it was obvious to see that he was the successor to the tradition. His stuttering but cunning innkeeper was as deft as Soleri when it came to timing and when the two shared the stage it was a meeting of equals.
Having seen Moretti and now Soleri I hope I’ll have the chance to see Bonvera continue the line. But, of course, this time I’ll try not to let it be in another 50 years.
10 maggio - Santi Alfio, Cirino e Filadelfo