In terms of seeing live theatre, Val and I went from the feast of South Africa, where we saw lots of wonderful productions, to the famine of Lebanon, where we saw nothing. So when I saw a poster advertising a commedia dell’arte performance, I was very interested. The poster was entirely written in Greek, except for just two words in English – Hope Project – so I knew where to discover further information.
I went with Jaime, a newly arrived volunteer from Madrid, here to teach English, and arriving at the Hope Project we discovered a stage set up in front of the warehouse. Since we were punctual, and the cast and audience were operating under Greek time, it was easy to claim a prime spot, and we took our seats in the second row.
For the benefit of those who do not know anything about commedia dell’arte, it is a theatrical style and tradition which began in Italy, played by companies of travelling players, and has been an important influence upon theatre since the 16th century. It has a number of characteristic aspects – largely based upon improvisation, it features traditional costumes and distinctive, caricatured half-masks, and includes music and acrobatic movement. It also includes famous stock characters, such as Punchinello and Arlecchino, which are the originals of Mr Punch and Harlequin. Despite knowing all of this in theory, it was the first time I had ever seen it in action.
I loved the beginning, a mimed prologue which involved a pair of bumbling fools stealing some sacred bones from a church, and I laughed lots. From then on, I did not enjoy it anything like as much as I thought I would. It is hard to pin down why. The live band was excellent; the costumes and masks were authentic, colourful and most effective; the players were skilled, acrobatic, energetic, and with all of the required exaggeration. I think the real problem was that there was also a great deal of language, and apart from some occasional (and welcome) modern references in English, it was all in Greek and really quite hard going. Of course, I am not suggesting that the performance should have been tailored to the very small number of English speakers in the audience, but although there was some laughter from the audience at some of the references, I think there ought to have been more. There was much to enjoy, but the scenes did seem to go on more than they needed to.
I am pleased to have had such a unique opportunity, but it did remind me of the advice that it is better to leave the audience wanting more, rather than hoping it had been just a little bit shorter.