Audrey Brisson as Gelsomina and Stuart Goown as Zampanò
First, a confession, I have never seen Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada, so the hype surrounding the stage adaptation of his masterpiece is somewhat lost.
Without that advantage, or perhaps disadvantage, the play is just that, a play, and it has to stand on its own two feet without any support gained from its illustrious provenance, and in that it succeeds rather well.
Set in an Italy struggling in the economic aftermath of the Second World War, Zampanò is a travelling street entertainer, the world’s strongest man.
In truth he is a bit of a one trick pony scraping a living from sparse and impoverished crowds by breaking a chain strapped around his chest merely by inflating his lungs.
This, he tells us endlessly, puts a great strain on the optic nerve, and a man went blind performing the trick in Milan – except once the man was in Bologna, a change of venue which was to have fatal consequences.
Audrey Brisson as Gelsomina
Zampanò seems to be from northern Italy, somewhere around Huddersfield from Stuart Goodwin’s gruff accent. He gives us a glorious brute of a man, quick to use his fists, travelling on his motorbike-cum-truck from village to village, eking out a living and spending all he makes on drink and, if it has been a good day, ladies of the night eking out their own existence.
The poverty of the times is illustrated by the fact he pays a mother 10,000 lira, around £100 then, to buy her young daughter as his assistant, having bought her sister, who is now dead with no questions asked, a year earlier.
The daughter, Gelsomina, is played splendidly by Audrey Brisson. She is a girl whose only talent is licking her finger and deciding if it is going to rain. She can’t dance, sings like a mouse with laryngitis and, for the purposes of acting as barker for his limited act, has the stage presence of a pebble.
Not that that bothers him unduly, he just beats her until she gets it right. The pair have an uneasy relationship on the road, poverty again being illustrated by our strongman’s delight at being paid for performing at a wedding in leftovers and a dead man’s clothes – plus a night of comforting of the widow – which does little for Gelsomina’s meagre earnings in this one-sided partnership.
The pair seem to strike lucky when they are employed by a circus where they meet the clown Il Matto, The Fool, a wonderful performance from Bart Soroczynski, who not only does things you would not believe on a unicycle but even rides it around the stage playing an accordion
Il Matto takes a dislike to the brutish Zampanò, belittling him at every turn and trying to persuade Gelsomina to leave, giving her a trumpet to join his own act.
It is a triangle which has tragedy waiting on each side.
Bart Soroczynski as Il Matto, the fool, playing his accordion on a unicycle surrounded by the ensemble as a band of circus musicians
Thrown from the circus after a fight the pair seek shelter from a storm in a convent where Gelsomina’s voice soars for the first time singing her haunting theme with a celestial backing group of singing nuns, the music from Benji Bower incidentally.
It is not only singing, her trumpet playing has come on a storm, so much so that the tables are turned, her playing now making more money than the chain breaking. Zampanò is now the assistant, the one going around with a hat collecting the money at the end.
But nothing last for ever and a chance meeting on the road with Il Matto exposes the triangle of tragedy once again and this time no one escapes.
La Strada is a harsh love story, devoid of any romance or even affection – apart from one moment in the convent when Gelsomina covers the sleeping Zampanò with a threadbare blanket, and he returns the favour when he awakes; but it is a love story none the less, one where perhaps no one realises their feelings, or is capable of expressing them until it is too late.
We are left with a distraught Zampanò on the beach where it all started haunted by the song of his lost Gelsomina, and what a voice Brisson been hiding, powerful, clear and quite beautiful.
The main characters are supported by a well-practised ensemble which, with a few crates, boxes and tyres, create everything from crowds and ocean waves to a circus and that motorbike – ‘American, never let me down’.
The clicking fingers to create the effect of rain at one point is not only effective it is just masterful.
The ensemble also includes a band of skilled musicians to provide the incidental and at times haunting music, Gelsomina’s theme emotively played quite beautifully once on a cello.
With minimal props and staging Aideen Maolone’s lighting is important and cleverly picks out scenes to create multiple stages in a small area.
Director Sally Cookson has created a very stylised and beautifully staged performance using the ensemble to express mood and location and apart from the two telegraph poles dominating the set, keeps a constantly changing stage, endlessly moving the crates and boxes around as tables, beds, furniture, the bike – whatever, which in turn helps to keep up the pace in what is a marvellously directed and acted production.
How the Coventry Belgrade production fares against the film of La Strada, which translates as The Road, I couldn’t say, but as a play it is a compelling glimpse into the often-complex nature of human relationships. It is a little like a Steinbeck novella, not a lot happens, but you are drawn in deeper and deeper until you just can’t take your eyes off this troubled journey to the end of The Road. To 13-05-17