La Strada review at Coventry Belgrade
 

 

Bart as the fool

Bart Soroczynski as Il Matto (The Fool) and ensemble. Pictures: Robert Day

La Strada

Coventry Belgrade

****

FRANCO Fellini won a Best Foreign Language Movie Oscar for four of his films: La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, and Amarcord, and an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1993, six months before he died.

Surprisingly, La Dolce Vita did not triumph, but picked up an Oscar for Best Costumes (in monochrome), as did . Fellini only started directing at the age of 30, having worked in the 1940s, mainly on scripting, with Roberto Rossellini, His other best known films include I Vitelloni, Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon and The Clowns.

La Strada was the second of his big hits (I Vitelloni came a year earlier). It’s both a vital, moving and at times disturbing story, about a young girl who is ‘sold’ to the travelling entertainer Zampanò (Anthony Quinn in the film, here Stuart Goodwin) to be his assistant. Her task is to travel with him in his motorbike caravan (here most amusingly created by Set/Costume Designer Katie Sykes, whose general shambles of a set reflects, like Fellini’s, the hand-to-mouth, unpredictable, unsettled ‘on the road’ feel.   

Goodwin makes an aptly brusque character of Zampanò, more lithe and mobile than Quinn’s lumpen original, but every bit as dismally moody and unresponsive. He has only one trick: breaking a heavy metal chain with his chest alone, prefaced by Gelsomina, his youthful aide, beating a drum (a duty for which he trains her up in one of the funnier sequences of this play with music). He was more generally butch than specifically defined: perhaps a bit more directorial invention (from Sally Cookson) was needed.

 

 Gelsomina

Audrey Brisson as Gelsomina and Stuart Goodwin as Zampano

The music is important, but being mainly instrumental, it only incidentally qualifies as a Musical – although it does have three or four songs, one of them electrifying. Here however we meet the band, who double as an acting ensemble, and do so with notable aplomb and flair. In the absence, however (with a couple of exceptions) of any pure dance, although Bart Soroczynski as The Fool from the circus, to whom Gelsomina (to Zampanò’s chagrin) takes a fancy, and whose every move is like a kind of pirouette (Movement Director: Cameron Carver).

The actual moves, while well plotted, are only adequately coordinated. A couple of blockings are brilliantly achieved; some of it is a bit too happy-go-lucky.

The instrumental playing, it should be said, is terrific, and Benji Bower’s new music periodically gives them something to get their teeth into – a kind of flamenco swing at one point, some vibrant, often short, numbers for two cellos, expressive violin and double bass, guitar and ukulele-like mini-guitar, and two accordionists who mainly lead the music, all of which goes with a swing and – albeit somewhat mongrel in style (perhaps deliberately so) – at its best, captivates.

The Fool’s antics are a delight: a hypnotising pretence at a high tightrope walk (the film has a real one), full of wobbly character, which little Gelsomina tries to emulate; and most eye-catchingly, a potentially perilous ride on a unicycle, on which Soroczynski steers around the set at breakneck speed. His control when hurtling is miraculous.

The lights are a great help. In a sense a bit bald, being usually single colours projected across a rough-hewn backcloth, Aideen Malone’s reds and pinks, lilac and green, dark and light blue, still help to sustain interest in the events on the relatively simple set (two telegraph poles are used to throw human shadows effectively, and a nice bit of gold and silver spotlighting again intensifies the feel). It’s a bit bland, but beneficial.

Gelsomina

Audrey Brisson as Gelsomina

The soaring star of the show is Audrey Brisson’s chirpy and cheerful Gelsomina. She has almost animal appeal, her smallness suggesting a teenager, and with antics to match. She tries her best to get on with the gruff, unwelcoming Zampanò (Quinn is a master at grumbling) , but soon realises he won’t change and they simply endeavour to tolerate each other. She interacts refreshingly with the ensemble, winning their friendship. She does her own little dances and tumbles, all of them enchanting. She is like a mascot, even a monkey, and her drumming and trumpet playing delight the circus.

But perhaps the best moment of this whole, slightly uneven, show is when Gelsomina herself bursts into song. It’s not till near the end, and up to then the only real melody we have heard was from a rather good baritone in the ensemble. But Brisson’s voice is sheer delight, and her descanting over the sound of the nuns from the top of one of the prominent telegraph poles (Zampano finally dumps her at a nunnery here and in the film), and then her own magical ditty which soars gorgeously on high, is utterly overwhelming and unexpectedly ravishing.

I wish there had been more like that in this version of La Strada. Oscar or no, Fellini’s film does rather lumber along, perhaps missing opportunities. And that was what I felt here – identifying the ensemble characters more closely, inventing more specific actions and situations for them, and allowing song to break in and bewitch us all with its power and potential, plus more touches of modern dance (though some mini-ballets using tyres to facilitate Zampano’s progress were an inspired idea, a magical touch and wholly successful) - all that would have helped clarify and enliven both the story and the show. There’s quite a lot to it, but quite a bit is lacking too.

Not all of it was as lucid as I’d hoped; but keeping La Strada loyally close to Fellini’s original is greatly to their credit. To 18-02-17

Roderic Dunnett

15-02-17 

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