Elegantly weathered shutters overlook a shaded Neapolitan courtyard. Vines snake up the old stone walls and light streams through the overhanging branches of an orange tree. Crickets chirrup and birds twitter. Fabric flowers sit under a halogen sun. It’s all exquisitely pretty in a strangely sterile way. But Eduardo De Filippo’s play is not big on pretty. It’s a comedy drawn from desperation, haunted by the spectre of poverty, and this tame, tasteful Tourist Board vision of southern Italy conveys nothing of that.
While it’s true that this courtyard, the home of the wealthy Don Domenico, is supposed to be a place of escape for the play’s protagonist, the one-time prostitute Filumena, a safe-haven from the ugly world outside, the production’s prevailing sense of disconnection is not just one of aesthetics. There’s something tonally amiss about the whole thing.
At the start of the play, Filumena has just tricked Don Domenico, her philandering lover of some 27 years, into a deathbed marriage. Though the minute the priest has made things official between them, she is suddenly, miraculously ‘cured.’ In the noisy fallout from her deception, it comes to light that she has three illegitimate adult sons – a writer, a tailor, and a mechanic – whom she has surreptitiously looked out for over the years. She now hopes that Domenico will assume the role of father and provider for all three.
Filumena was driven into prostitution out of desperation. Her teenage years were spent on the brink of starvation; poverty closes doors, it shrinks people’s worlds, and this was the only way out that seemed open to her. It was an act of survival. De Filippo’s play does not skirt around the issue, nor does it gloss over the tough choices she faced in bringing each of her children into the world; she has, in her own way, managed to provide for them financially, though she was never able to be a mother to them. Now she seeks security, comfort, the love that was denied to her. But while pain radiates from the writing it is rarely evident on stage.
Samantha Spiro is an actor of warmth and charisma but in the play’s opening scenes she comes across as shrill and hard-edged, a schemer. Only later, when her motivations are clearer, does she start appearing more human, more sympathetic. Clive Wood’s Domenico is all froth and bluster, a carapace of masculine menace; when he first discovers Filumena has tricked him, he half-heartedly shakes a spoon at her while spouting unconvincing threats.
There is further disconnection evident in the translation by Tanya Ronder. While it’s probably necessary to have the cast avoid Italian caricature, Ronder takes things in the other direction, revelling in the colloquial. Her translation has Filumena’s sons calling one another “twat” and “big man”, and people screeching “silly old cow.” It all sits rather awkwardly on the studiously attractive flower-bedecked set; the gap between what we see and what we hear is an increasingly difficult one to bridge.
Michael Attenborough’s production wakes up and warms up considerably in the far shorter second half. There is some genial if underpowered comic interplay between the three sons and everyone suddenly and almost unaccountably seems inclined to be far kinder to one another. But it all comes too late in the day; and the production never convincingly evokes the social polarization of post-war Naples, the creep of poverty and the lengths people will go to in order to survive. The play’s heat, its vital fire, has been damped down, its emotional potency neutered.