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Sally Cookson's stage adaptation of Federico Fellini's Oscar-winning masterpiece of modern cinema.
After wide-eyed Gelsomina is sold to sideshow strongman Zampano, the pair embark on a perilous road trip through the Italian countryside to perform for their keep. But when they meet tightrope walker Il Matto, Gelsomina's spirit is rekindled with a newfound confidence.
Mon 7pm; Tues - Sat 7.30pm plus Thurs & Sat 2pm
In the bleak aftermath of a fascist dictatorship and two devastating wars, life in 1950s Italy was unforgiving and often desperate, especially for the rural poor. Yet even the darkest times can be illuminated by the bright light of a great imagination like that of filmmaker Federico Fellini. In his cinematic masterpiece La Strada, a girl born into poverty is bought, beaten and eventually abandoned, yet there's a kind of magical unreality to story that somehow enables Gelsomina to transcend the brutal world around her.
More than 60 years after the film first appeared in cinemas, theatre director Sally Cookson reinterprets Gelsomina's “folk-tale like odyssey” on stage in a brand new production receiving its world premiere at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. We spoke to Cookson and the cast to find out more about the show.
“The film was made in 1954, amidst the legacy of the fascist regime and the terrible destruction of the war, and Fellini was really reacting against that by showing what life was like for the underclass and what they did in order to survive,” says Cookson. “So it explores themes of absolute brutality and what happens when everything is taken away from you. But it also asks where the soul and the imagination and the creativity are in all of that. Gelsomina really represents the idea of the human spirit surviving regardless of everything that happens to her.”
Set against a backdrop of extreme poverty, La Strada begins with a widowed mother of many who is forced to sell her oldest daughter as an assistant to a travelling circus performer in the hope that she will learn a craft and make a living of her own. Yet through a combination of music, comedy, circus and the familiar filmic trope of a journey to self-discovery on “the road” (the literal translation of the title), Fellini moves beyond the grit of classic realism and into a dreamlike, philosophical realm where there is a chance for even the cruellest character to find redemption.
“Fellini uses a lot of symbolism and magic realism in the film, taking it out of the absolutely naturalistic depiction of what life was like, and that's something that I respond to. I always love to find a way of showing the imagination and the dreams of different characters,” she continues.
Of course, translating this into a stage production has been an enormous challenge for the team behind the show, but through a process of devising with a truly multi-talented cast, Cookson has developed a kind of theatrical language through which to tell the story.
“Finding a way to put this on stage has been an extraordinary mission, and there's still an awful lot more to discover, but what we are exploring is trying not to tell the story in a linear way. We're using music and a lot of physical storytelling to wrest it into a play,” she explains. “I make shows by devising, which means that we don't start with a script, so all of us – the composer, the designer, the cast, the movement director, the writer in the room – begin our journey at the same time, and the material is created collaboratively and organically.”
This means a lot more is expected of the performers than in a typical scripted show: in addition to traditional acting, physical theatre, singing and playing instruments, they're also required to play an active part in piecing the story and characters together. But far from finding it difficult, the cast seem to see this set-up as incredibly liberating, enjoying the chance to exercise creativity.
“The thing about this process is that it gives us a lot of freedom,” says Bart Sorocyznski, who plays the mysterious, almost Puckish fool, Il Matto. “I've barely met a director who is so 'ego-less' and laid-back. She gives us room to fool around, not only as performers but like kids, and I think that's important. In the end, acting is playing, and I think for Sally the main thing is to have fun.”
With his circus background, Sorocyznski is well accustomed to this style of working. Both Audrey Brisson, who plays the hapless innocent Gelsomina, and Stuart Goodwin, who plays the travelling strongman and her cruel master Zampano, also have experience of devising theatre, both with Cookson and with the acclaimed Kneehigh Theatre.
“I think today having companies where the director comes in and tells you how you're going to do things is something we're seeing less and less of,” says Brisson. “The beauty of this kind of theatre is that you keep working and the show keeps moving and evolving.”
The collaborative nature of the work means that certain aspects of the show will be dependent on the personalities and talents of the performers themselves – whether that's specific learned abilities like playing instruments or circus training, or 'soft skills' more specific to individual personalities.
“I've worked with Audrey before and she has this natural spirit of curiosity and joy that I don't think is something you can pretend to have,” says Cookson.
“Every one of us has a sensibility towards something that is not what we've chosen to specialise in. I'm not an amazing musician but I do play accordion, for example,” says Sorocyznski, explaining how both script and score are put together in a similar way. “We do contribute to the composition – everyone is part of that – so the musicians will feed ideas to the composer and then he decides what to do with them.”
In this way the music becomes integral to the production, capturing and reflecting moods and ideas expressed in dialogue and movement. But as important as the music is, Cookson is keen to stress that this is not a conventional piece of musical theatre.
“There is a lot of music and even songs in the show, but this is not a musical, precisely because the tone of the story does not fit the musical form. I'd describe it as a play with music,” she says. “If people come along expecting jazz hands and chorus numbers... well, they're not going to get that, although I hope that they'll still be enthralled and intrigued by the story.”
“I think it comes down to definition, but the big difference is that in a typical musical, an actor comes forward to express his feelings or desires in a song,” explains producer Kenny Wax, whose original plan to revive Lionel Bart's 1969 musical adaptation of the film eventually gave way to Cookson's rather different style of working. “That's not something you get here – Audrey and Bart and Stuart don't come up and do big numbers. But there is music underlying the whole thing. In a way it's more choral, which might sound a bit dry, but it's not at all – the music comes out quite organically in pubs and café scenes and weddings. There are thirteen performers in total – ten of them are actors, but even the three full-time musicians are very much integrated into the action.”
In addition to challenging audiences' preconceptions about how music can be used in a production, Sorocyznski also hopes the show might go some way to addressing imbalances in the way that circus is perceived and treated as compared with other performing arts.
“If you see how people work and how they hone their craft in a circus, you'll understand that it's a vocation which is tremendously hard,” he says. “Often you're doing eight shows a week at a very high level, and it's risky. Of course it's controlled risk, but there's risk nonetheless. But the sad thing is that even now, circus performers are not truly considered on a level with actors or singers or dancers. A lot of the time you mention circus to people and the first thing they think of is animal rights. It makes me angry. I hope this will be part of a move to change that. I think we're working towards that.”
In one sense, the drabness and isolation of the 1950s that the film depicts seems a world away today, when mobile devices provide constant entertainment on demand, when women's rights have come so far, and when loved ones can stay in touch from thousands of miles apart. But scratch the surface and you'll find there are a lot more similarities than you might think. For the La Strada team, at least, revisiting the story has brought home some uncomfortable truths about the society we live in now.
“For me I think it kind of reflects upon the refugees and people who don't have a home – the way that people try to make a home of what they have,” says Brisson. “That is something I remember from touring as a child, like having a pillow you always travel with because you want that association with home.”
“We're living in interesting times,” Goodwin agrees. “When you look at things like Trump and Brexit and the far right – all this fragmentation, it's not too big a leap to compare it to post-war Europe, especially with all these itinerant people. I think we've got to look these things in the face, but also to make sure we look for the joy in the story too.”
“As Fellini said, there is beauty in the tragedy of being human, and I think it's important to recognise that being human requires us deal with these big tragedies. In a way it's just holding up a mirror to what's still going on in our society: two women are still being murdered every week, which is a shocking statistic and I think the film taps into that misogyny. So the story is heartbreaking and it will be hard-hitting, but on the other hand I would never want to alienate an audience. As Brecht says, whatever subject matter youre dealing with, it always has to be entertaining – you're not going to achieve anything if you can't engage an audience. So I hope that this will be a powerful piece that audiences will really connect with and respond to.”
La Strada is at the Belgrade Theatre until Saturday 18 February.
Film director Federico Fellini once described an artist as “a provincial who finds himself somewhere between a physical reality and a metaphysical one”. The quote could just as easily describe the unconventional heroine of his 1954 movie masterpiece, La Strada (The Road), and her journey through a world that mixes fairytale fantasy with the mundane and often bleak reality of life in impoverished rural Italy.
Launching a brand new stage adaptation at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre next month, acclaimed director Sally Cookson describes the story as a “folk tale-like odyssey” about finding one's purpose in life.
“My first encounter with the film was as a child,” recalls Sally. “My father was a fan and I happened to be in the room while he was watching it. At the time, I didn't understand it, but I was completely beguiled by the strangeness of it. It was only when I watched it again while I was at drama school in my 20s that I realised what a powerful piece of film it is, and it's stayed with me ever since then. So when the producer, Kenny Wax, came to me with the idea of adapting it for the stage, it felt like a really good match.”
The film follows the journey of a young woman, Gelsomina, who is effectively sold by her mother to serve as assistant to a travelling street performer. Zampano, a strongman who previously employed Gelsomina's older sister Rosa (now dead under mysterious circumstances), proves to be a cruel master, beating Gelsomina when she fails to meet his standards and abandoning her at the first sign of alcohol and pretty women.
After some time on the road, the pair come across an itinerant circus which they briefly join. Before long, however, Zampano gets into a scrap with the Fool, Il Matto, who mocks Zampano's repetitive, unimaginative act and takes a shine to Gelsomina. While Zampano spends a night in jail, Gelsomina is faced with a choice: to join the circus and leave with them, to head off on a new adventure with Il Matto, or to await Zampano's release and return to the life she knows.
For a director like Cookson, known for openly challenging gender norms in productions like her gender-reversed Sleeping Beauty, her consciously Wendy-centred Peter Pan, and a highly acclaimed adaptation of Jane Eyre, the story does present some challenges.
“Gelsomina can certainly be seen as a victim, but I'm determined that we find her... action, if you like. The relationship between Zampano and Gelsomina is an abusive one, certainly, but Gelsomina doesn't just lie down and take it - she confronts him and questions and provokes all the way through the story. Like Jane Eyre, she's constantly looking for a better life and striving to discover her potential, but circumstances make that very difficult for her. I've also cast Audrey Brisson, who's a really feisty, incredibly brilliant and wonderfully strong actor, and she'll bring her personality to the part, which should make the character anything but passive.”
Under Cookson's unconventional style of direction, Brisson, along with the rest of the cast, will play a direct role in shaping and developing the show and characters, rather than simply interpreting a pre-written part. This means that the finished piece is likely to end up being substantially different from the film.
“My way of creating theatre is through devising, which means we don't start with a complete script. The story itself is a very powerful one, so we will be following the narrative quite closely, but I think it would be really dangerous to just lift the film script straight onto the stage - I don't think that would make a very interesting piece of theatre. I'm working very closely with a dramatist called Mike Akers as well as with the actors, and we all collaborate together in the room to find the best way of bringing the story to life.”
This can make finding the right cast for the job a rather long and tricky process, however.
“Casting takes forever! I spend a long time casting because I need to find actors who are not only brilliant and skilled at interpreting characters as performers, but also people who are able to investigate a story and have ideas and come up with their own dialogue. On top of that, with this show, we're looking for very physical performers who can sing and move and play instruments, so it's a very multi-talented company.”
In the film, both Gelsomina and Il Matto are musicians, and a melancholy air - performed by Gelsomina on the trumpet and by Il Matto on a miniature violin - serves as an ongoing emotional link between them, even when they're apart. The stage version will be slightly different - Cookson's Fool plays the accordion rather than the violin, and a new score by her long-term collaborator Benji Bower will replace the original Nino Rota soundtrack - but collectively the cast will be performing all the music.
“It won't be a musical, but there will be a lot of music in the piece. I always use music to help place the story and create the right feeling, and I work very closely with Benji to do that. When we workshopped the story in spring, the music really helped us to excavate that folk story-cum-fairytale world. There's a real cross between a sort of gritty, realist world and a very imaginative, strange one, and having music enables us to lift it out of a naturalistic setting.”
Visually, audiences should not expect too great a degree of realism, either. The film shows Zampano and Gelsomina travelling through several locations, but while Katie Sykes, another frequent collaborator of Cookson's, will be designing the sets, the team will be employing a whole range of different techniques to evoke a sense of the world and the characters' passage through it.
“You have to engage the audience's imagination - I won't be feeding it all to them on a plate. We will be creating the atmosphere of the impoverished Italian roadside through very simple means, but I'm not entirely sure how we'll do it yet. That's what's really exciting about devising - at this stage, before we go into rehearsals, we haven't got all the answers yet.”
As well as their musical abilities, Cookson also intends to make use of the circus skills of some of her leading performers, though again, not to the extent that this becomes a circus show rather than a piece of theatre.
“I want to use the real skills of the circus performers, but also the skills of the actors to theatrically create the family of the circus in an imaginative way. So I think we'll be using a mixture of the skills these actors have and then finding ways of suggesting things like someone on a trapeze without actually having them up in the air.”
Unusually for a touring rather than an in-house production, the show will be making its debut at the Belgrade Theatre in February, at the start of a longer UK tour which will eventually end with a London run.
“It was ultimately down to the producers, but I was very supportive of the idea. It's great to take work out into the regions and I'm really happy to be working in Coventry. I love the theatre there - I think it's a fantastic space and they've got great energy. It's also really important to me to bring my work to theatres that haven't seen it yet, so it's very exciting for me.”
La Strada shows at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from Saturday 11 to Saturday 18 February, and The REP, Birmingham, from Monday 8 to Saturday 13 May
So distinctive was Federico Fellini's brand of cinematic magic realism that a new adjective was eventually coined in his honour to describe it. As such, translating his masterpiece, La Strada, onto the stage was always going to be a difficult task, but even aside from devising from scratch being her preferred method of creating theatre, director Sally Cookson (whose sharp brain you can practically see working behind her eyes) took barely a moment to establish that a radical rethink was in order.
Counterintuitively, this production captures something remarkably close to the fantastic and magical yet also bleak and often unsettling atmosphere of Fellini's film by working almost in the opposite direction. Naturalistic acting is replaced by a bold, expressive physicality; inner thoughts and themes emerge through the sounds and choreographed actions of an ensemble chorus, flowing in and out of the story like the tide at Gelsomina's beloved coastline; and endless miles of desolate roadside are evoked through telegraph poles and lengths of cable, rope and chain that seem to stretch off into the distance even as they hang down ominously from above. Simple props, stylised movement and sound effects used to create Zampano's motorbike, the water and various locations for the story produce an improvised, makeshift feel in keeping with the lifestyle of the travelling players it follows.
As in the film, the show begins and ends at the sea, an emblem of freedom and purity. It's by the sea that strongman Zampano first purchases his young assistant, Gelsomina, from her widowed and impoverished mother, and it's by the sea that he will remember her years later. Cookson and designer Katie Sykes pick up on this symbolism, contrasting it with the recurring motif of the chain that is central to Zampano's act. Chains and ropes come to represent the bondage that Gelsomina is sold into, but more figuratively, they also represent the harsh circumstances that hold these desperate characters together at the bottom of society. Zampano finds some degree of freedom in brute force, both literally and metaphorically snapping the chains that bind him through sheer physical strength. “How do you break the chain?” a woman asks him poignantly as the tension in her washing line is suddenly broken. Just moments earlier, the playful circus clown Il Matto reminds Gelsomina that there is nothing solid binding her to her master, and that she's free to leave if ever she chooses to. But as Gelsomina discovers, it's often the psychological bonds that are the hardest to shake off.
There are some subtle changes to Il Matto's conversation with Gelsomina that alter the dynamic of the scene somewhat. Fellini's Fool, though charming, never feels entirely trustworthy, and what he says to Gelsomina about Zampano arguably burdens him with some responsibility for her fate. Bart Soroczynski's Fool, on the other hand, is kinder and apparently more hopeful that he'll be able to talk some sense into her, while Audrey Brisson's Gelsomina is more decisive and assertive by the end than is her movie counterpart, despite being given fewer options. The reverse side of this is that Zampano's motives are made less explicit – we're left to rely on the clues that Stuart Goodwin gives us to the loneliness behind the character's brutish front, and to the care behind his cruelty to Gelsomina – though it must be said that these are offered in abundance.
The cast is superb, striking the perfect balance of complex, believable personalities and timeless archetypes that are so important to this story with its grand themes of innocence lost, regret and redemption, forked paths and missed opportunities. The point that it is both specific and universal might be a little laboured in the opening and closing choruses, but even these hark back to a noble theatrical tradition of prologues and epilogues which again feels thematically apt.
Aside from the vivid imagery and beautiful performances, what's most arresting about La Strada is the music that permeates every pore of the production. Again, rather unlike the quiet, underpopulated, post-war countryside of Fellini's film, yet oddly of a piece with it, this version of the story positively throngs with life and noise. Rather than breaking up the action, Benji Bower's richly textured score works symbiotically with the sounds of Gelsomina's world, its tunes and rhythms arising naturally from crashing waves and chuntering engines, from bands and crowds in a bar and at a wedding, from performers at the circus and from the spine-tingling singing of the nuns in the convent where the unhappy pair seek shelter on a rainy night. Three full-time musicians are fully integrated with the cast of ten, playing bass, violin, accordion and guitar. Additionally, Gelsomina tentatively learns to play the trumpet, there's some astonishing singing, particularly from Tatiana Santini and from Brisson, and just wait until you see Soroczynski's unicycling, accordion-playing circus act!
This may not be a very happy story, but it's beautifully told, in a way that does full justice to the genius of Fellini by respecting the uniqueness of his work enough to not attempt to simply recreate it. Instead, Cookson and her creative team – the brilliant cast included – have trusted to their instincts, paying homage to the master while developing something fresh, engrossing and emotionally resonant in its own right.
It seems only fair to mention, too, that this is just the second performance – like its itinerant characters, the show will doubtless continue to grow and mature as it continues on its journey around the country.
Reviewed by Heather Kincaid
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