Words by Damien Russell / Production shots by Robert Day
A road never truly begins or ends.
In a conveniently representative way, the story of La Strada never truly begins or ends either.
For those who aren’t aware, the story starts as our protagonist (it’s early and I’m not feeling generous enough for ‘heroine’), Gelsomina, is sold to the (technically antagonist, but not quite) strong-man Zampanò. But there’s already history between them, with a missing sister (deceased) as well as some back story around an absent father (also deceased). Not exactly your ‘once upon a time’ beginning. The two have a dysfunctional relationship centred around Zampanò’s sense of superiority and power, alongside Gelsomina’s struggle to find useful skills and her devotion to a man who is, in a sense, abusive.
The story ends as abruptly as it begins, with Gelsomina leaving Zampanò. We follow his journey to the point where he finds out what happened to her – leaving him in a sadder, guiltier place than where we started, but still otherwise intact. So ‘happily ever after’ it certainly is not either.
Resolution and finality were never on the cards with La Strada. Luckily I have no problem with this since Waiting for Godot entered my life by accident some years ago; it’s something I’ve come to expect from a certain type of work from that era. I say ‘era’ as I’ve struggled with the definition of neorealism and why certain works of the time ‘are’ and some ‘are not’, so I shy away from the labels and go with my gut.
Equally, I have come to expect little in the way of major character analysis. The idea of that style seems to be the presentation of snapshots of life, events and the characters therein, with the rest discarded as irrelevant. So with that in mind, I also expected the actual content of the script to be quite fixed without any huge deviations from the original film.
I approached this latest representation of Fellini’s classic work hoping for innovative staging, with good character interplay through stage presence, lighting and direction. I also hoped for a good score, as I know the score for this version of La Strada was produced specifically for it. I was happy to see that all three things were present and correct.
The first thing before us as we sat and settled, was the stage. Stark wooden flooring containing a number of wooden boxes (reminiscent of old fruit boxes) and two telegraph poles, one front – stage right, one back – stage centre. Those, and the instruments, were all that were present and all that was needed. Any further scenery was provided by the clever staging and the cast members themselves playing the lead, support, orchestra, and setting as required. Naturally the odd tablecloth, light, bowl etc came into play, but the setup was minimalist.
The use of the stage was well thought out and through the flow of people (and the few props) they created open space, movement and separation in turn. I was particularly impressed at some of the scene changes and at the way so few cast members could bring fluid movement and change. I loved the fact that the stage itself had been left largely bare to keep space for the actions and people – and through those actions, they rendered additional staging redundant.
And while I mention fluidity, it’s worth saying that I found the transitions between prose and song to be very smooth indeed. I had expected musical pieces, but I’ve often seen musicals make stark changes leaving the audience wondering why that person had suddenly burst into song and spoiling the flow of the show. I never got that feeling in this production of La Strada; I was also impressed by the score itself, feeling both contemporary and appropriate to the setting. Excellent instrumentation (but then a double-bass and cello are a dead cert for me) and skilled musicians added to an unexpectedly positive element.
The cast themselves were the sort of people I like to call ‘annoyingly talented’. A full suite of vaudeville skills were displayed by all, and whilst some cast members were better at some skills than others nothing ever came across as being ‘bad’. My only criticism was that in some instances the acting itself was a little more wooden than I would have liked. However this may have been in part due to the multi-lingual cast and script; we saw English, French and Italian at various points, and I in particular loved the nod toward the play’s Italian origins.
A brief note on the direction and script use; I was pleased and surprised in equal measure to see that this production of La Strada followed in the fashion of a ‘no holds barred’ approach. There were sections including swearing (often humorously added), violence (less humorous) and sexuality, whilst the underlying theme of domestic abuse wasn’t undersold. I’m not entirely sure if the parents sat to my left regretted bringing their young daughters or not, but the kids themselves seemed engaged with the play. So all’s well that doesn’t bug the hell out of me, bleating or rustling sweets.
I walked into the REP excited but uncertain: knowing that a stage production of La Strada had a lot to live up to, knowing that we had been promised much, and hoping that the delivery would be half as good as it needed to be.
The Belgrade Theatre Coventry’s Production of La Strada is presented by Kenny Wax Ltd, in association with Cambridge Arts Theatre & Bristol Old Vic. For more on La Strada, including details of the full UK tour, visit www.lastradalive.com
For more from the Birmingham REP, including full event programme and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk