If the 1954 film La Strada helped coin ‘Felliniesque’ to describe an elegantly bizarre disruption of mundanity, then this musical interpretation must finally enshrine ‘Cookson-esque’ to our dramatic vocabulary. The music and precise gestural choreography of Sally Cookson’s emotional chorus of circus folk and Italian villagers underscores this new version of Fellini’s definitive road movie. The interpretation is not an exact re-telling, but preserves the essence of the film as Cookson has previously done with Jane Eyre and Hetty Feather.
Fellini’s most famous film (which has that Ulysses quality of everyone knowing it’s a classic even if few in the era of Netflix have ever seen it) is the poignant tale of naïve country girl Gelsomina (Audrey Brisson), bought from her mother for 10,000 lira by Zampanò (Stuart Goodwin) to take on the road with his questionable strong man act. Cookson’s process of devising in the rehearsal room with no starting script results in a company that have evident investment in every movement and dramatic decision made. A stand out performance from Tatiana Santini in her solo that conjures lust not only in Zampanò but I’d wager most of the audience, shows the wonderful things that can happen when the ensemble are given chances to shine rather than solely confined to the background.
Visually, Katie Sykes has achieved a rare and marvellous feat in creating a gothic vaudevillian circus, without ever veering into Brechtian panto. The subtly whitened faces and red rimmed eyes of the cast are simultaneously beautiful and grotesque. Even when certain characters are merely glimpsed, they clearly lead whole and complex lives. Aideen Malone’s liberal application of side light, a technique more commonly employed in dance, is here used marvellously to cast sinister Nosferatu style shadows as well as to illuminate the minute, expressive movements of the ensemble.
Brisson is convincing in her nervy physicality and puts her Cirque du Soleil background to good use in haunting wordless melodies. If Giulietta Masina’s filmic portrayal of Gelsomina garlanded her ‘the female Chaplin’ then Audrey Brisson’s performance is more akin to Buster Keaton, where even a raising of the eyebrows is enough to get the audience on her side. Bart Soroczynski’s Fool is introduced to us on a mimed tightrope and continues to wobble between philosophical hero and wind up merchant. He similarly inspires an urge to protect with a faux-precarious unicycle routine gleaning genuine whooahs of concern. His long limbed vulnerability is at odds with his ability to perform acrobatics at the same time as seemingly straightforward dialogue. Given their intense likeability, it is strange that the second act tragedy feels detached. It may be that the entire illusory quality of the production leaves the audience slightly aloof, that this is a fantastical dream that does not require our empathy. It is this nihilistic end, however, that although perhaps cold, is very much a part of the existential drama.
The Other Palace gives space to musicals that don’t fit the West End mould. Such works that aren’t a sing-a-long jukebox night out, or based on a film or book steeped in mass cultural reference points. The only question is whether an Italian neorealist masterpiece is rooted enough in the public consciousness to draw the crowds in. La Strada is not a musical that will you leave humming the tunes (unless perhaps you have an excellent ear for Italian) but rather contains songs that are used to elevate the emotional landscape of the characters, and therefore achieve a musical’s ultimate aim: to lead us somewhere new with each refrain. I only hope that there is an audience for it.
La Strada is on until 8th July 2017 at The Other Palace. Click here for more details.