Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Theatre: Going To-and-Fro Between the Fo and Flu.

Carol Burns as Elizabeth points the way to the 16th Century satirical tradition known as Commedia dell'arte

almost by chance a woman. Stars Carol Burns, Eugene Gilfedder, SarahKennedy, Jason Klarwein, Dash Kruck, John Rodgers.  Directed by Wesley Enoch. Queensland Theatre Company. Powerhouse. Continues till June 24.

It has been more than a week since my last posting and, thanks to a bout of
the flue, I am now in catch-up mode as I try to make-up for lost time.

However, the one thing about life is that it doesn’t stand still for anyone – not even royalty as I noticed the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert went ahead as Prince Phillip was carted off to hospital – so it’s up to us all to keep dancing as fast as we can for as long as we can.

Last week I was talking about Opera Australia staging The Magic Flue – and describing it as a tad highbrow – and this week it might appear, at first, that I have gone a little lowbrow with Dario Fo.

The Italian Nobel Peace Prize winner, who is still rattling around the planet somewhere, was born March 24, 1926, which makes him a month older then the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II.

While shows such as Elizabeth, almost by chance a woman, appear vulgar, outspoken and absurdist, they are actually well crafted examples of a satirical theatre tradition that goes back centuries.

Elizabeth, which features esteemed British actress Carols Burns in the title role and centres on England’s Elizabeth I, affectionately known as Good Queen Bess, draws on the Italian Commedia dell’arte as a starting point.

One only has to look at Fo’s history – within the theatre and elsewhere – to see that his life has been a rich political experience beginning with his work with his father in the anti-fascist Resistance in World War II.

It would seem - and my confirming source is that sometimes vulnerable cyber reference Wikipedia -  Fo and Son were instrumental in helping various individuals, including allied soldiers and Jewish scientists, escape to Switzerland.

Even in the post war era, Fo was walking a thin line turning Biblical stories into political satire – an extreme thing to do in Catholic Italy –  writing plays from the 1950s.

However, I was first introduced to his work decades later in Brisbane.

For a while in the 1980s,  Fo’s work was extremely popular with the TN Company, which at that time was a major ‘serious’ dramatic force within the Brisbane arts community.

I recall productions of Raspberries and Trumpets and the Accidental Death of an Anarchist among others. His most successful play, Buffo, translated into 30 languages, never made Brisbane to my knowledge.

Naturally, serious theatre students have always embraced the Commedia dell’arte, with its references to stock characters, social and political satire, improvisation and a chance to connect with western theatre’s first tentative professional outing.

What I particularly liked about this revamped version of Fo, freely adapted and translated by Luke Devenish and Louise Fox, is the language plucked from the past and made into contemporary relevance.

However, I do concede that the two hour show –  revolving around absurdist goings on between Elizabeth and her various courtiers whom in real life would have been flung (or worse) into the tower – does wear a trifle thin in the narrative department.

The basic idea is that Elizabeth, whom Flo asserts was no virgin but rather waiting for her lover, the  treacherous Earl of Essex, is old and dying and doing it in a loud and boisterous, bawdy way.

(What a way to go if you still have the strength)

Throw in William Shakespeare (whom the Queen believes is really writing about her), a wordy bureaucrat, a patronising maid, a transvestite and a tiresome boy and you’re got a spicy mix of seemingly outrageous nonsense.

But the language – and some notable theatrical antics from the likes of Carol Burns, Dash Kruck Eugene Gilfedder, Sarah Kennedy and Jason Klarwein along with musical help and added contributions from John Rodgers  – made it first brilliant, then bearable and then, well, it’s time to go.

The last 15 minutes are a bit wearisome.

There’s been a bit of twitter chatter lately – believe it or not – about the viability of political satire, but I reckon, like all forms of theatre, it has its place.

Like most things in life, as John Lennon once wrote, whatever gets you through the night.

I was brought up in a British satirical tradition and recall, as a young man, dipping into a broad range of absurd comic traditions including playwright NF Simpson,  radio’s The Goons and later TV’s Monty Python Flying Circus.

I think the British tradition was more easy-going, more socially-driven and less a reaction to politics as, I believe, the country in the later part of the 20th century displayed an even political temper.

Of course, individuals who believe they were the victims of injustice would disagree with that point of view, but once again it falls back on personal experience.

For once, I haven’t come across any reviews of Elizabeth, which I would particularly recommend, but then I haven’t been looking too closely.

However, those looking for a review in a sentence – they have their place as well – might describe it as Ab Fab meets Black Adder with a dash of the Goons and Monty Python (all English comic references, I know) thrown in for good measure.

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