At a time when the sort of ‘classic’ film that’s adapted into a stage show is more likely than not to be some 70s or 80s confection with feelgood singalong potential, it’s cheering that La Strada, based on a genuine classic of world cinema, even exists. The fact that it’s so remarkably well done only makes it feel more extraordinary.
But this isn’t simply some sort of film geek substitution, where neo-realism rubs along with slightly surreal circuses instead of a potter’s wheel being semi-ironically juxtaposed with 60s hits. Indeed, it was perfectly clear that plenty of people in The Lowry audience had little or no acquaintance with the brilliant Italian film director Federico Fellini’s heartbreaking 1954 film (incidentally the first film to win the Best Film In A Foreign Language Academy Award) and, moreover, that those who were already familiar with the film had probably come more in hope than expectation that their bitter-sweet memories one of their film-going rites of passage wouldn’t be trampled in the dirt.
There was, notoriously, an earlier effort to put La Strada on the stage but the Lionel Bart-scored effort closed after one night on Broadway in 1969, despite starring Bernadette Peters. I claim no familiarity at all with that disaster but I do distinctly recall being reduced to tears when I saw a re-released version of Fellini’s film. So I approached this new theatrical version with some trepidation, even though it boded well that director Sally Cookson was at the helm, whose much-admired version of Jane Eyre played at The Lowry recently.
Cookson points out that the challenge of staging La Strada was “almost the direct opposite” of that presented by Jane Eyre, which was “to tell the story through action without losing the richness of Jane’s internal life and the depth of characterisation that her inner monologue provides”. In Fellini’s film, though, “the camera observes the characters without comment or judgement. We get glimpses into their inner lives and motivations, but they are fleeting and often mysterious. The story is open to interpretation. The viewer is offered a window on the lives of Gelsomina, Zampano and The Fool. It is left up to us to decide what we think of them and why it is important that we hear their story. Fellini describes the best cinema as having the language of dreams, everything that you see there has meaning, but the meaning is not always literal or easily understandable.”
Even so, the company, who have devised the show with ‘writer in the room’ Mike Akers, follow fairly closely the outline of the Fellini film. The waif-like Gelsomina, memorably played in the film by Fellini’s wife Giuletta Masina, is sold by her poverty-stricken mother to a travelling strongman. The brutal Zampano tours post-war Italy on an American-made motorbike, entertaining peasant crowds with a chain-busting act then spends all his money on drink and loose women. He mercilessly beats the superficially talentless and insecure Gelsomina but somehow, even as she grows in strength and talent, she can never quite escape from him. It looks as if things might finally change for Gelsomina when the improbable pair join a ragtag circus and Gelsomina is befriended by an acrobatic clown, known as The Fool, but tragedy lurks.
Audrey Brisson is tremendous as Gelsomina, rising magnificently to the extraordinary challenge of portraying her without imitating Masina, all the while giving her just enough artful self-realisation to make her palatable to the sensibilities of a contemporary audience. There are sterling turns too from the other principals, Stuart Goodwin as Zampano and Bart Soroczynski as The Fool, with some brilliant inventiveness at work in the staging, where three tyres and a couple of wooden crates can turn into Zampano’s motorcycle truck or a strip of candy-coloured canvas transform into a circus tent. The gifted ensemble not only double as actors and musicians, but are so fluidly mobile on stage that it’s sometimes like watching a dance piece.
All in all then, something of an unlikely triumph and highly recommended.
But what will happen next, with theatre apparently so willing and able to cross-pollinate with arthouse movie hits? Could there be a theatre franchise to be found in Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel adventures, or Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons instead of Batman? Remember, you heard it here first.
By Kevin Bourke, Theatre Editor
La Strada is showing at The Lowry until May 20 and then moves to Sheffield Lyceum until May 27, 2017