“La Strada” meaning “The Road” has been adapted for the stage from Fellini’s famous film starring Anthony Quinn. The producer Kenny Wax and director Sally Cookson have come up with a magical two hours at the theatre creating what can only be called a total work of art.
Blending together in a rich mix elements of dance, mime, circus acts, music,singing and acting, this production transports one to a world both very real but at the same time surreal. The story centres around a young girl Gelsomina (Audrey Brisson) who is sold by her mother to a wandering showman Zampano (Stuart Goodwin) for money to feed her other children. Zampano and Gelsomina travel around Italy in truck, stopping in small villages and towns to perform their act. Zampano can break a chain on his bare chest. He claims to be the world’s strongest man. On the journey they join a circus and meet the third central character The Fool (Bart Soroczynski).
In the relationships in this eternal triangle, the human condition is explored in all its complexity and contradictions. On the one hand we have the sado-masochistic power relationship between the simple minded Gelsomina and the brutal hard man Zampano. With his bare chest, ego and love of power he reminded me of Mussolini. There is a master/slave element to their relationship that perhaps echoes Becketts Pozzo and Lucky in “Waiting For Godot.” Zampano abuses Gelsomina and treats her as nothing more than a skivvy. Moreover he has probably also killed her sister, his previous assistant. So it’s an abusive relationship based on fear and power. Perhaps most powerfully demonstrated when Zampano forces Gelsomino to play the drums to drum up customers for his act. Every time he issues a command he whips her. Or when he spends all the money they have earned on drinking and a prostitute. Gelsomina pathetically protests that she has promised to send some money home to her mother. It’s a mixed up relationship however, as there is clearly more to the relationship. It is exciting being on the road, arriving at new places, setting up the act, Gelsomina gets to play the drums and collects the money from the audience in her hat. Zampano takes her to a restaurant to eat and dance. They have many adventures together.
On the road, the truck, which is brilliantly imagined by the cast with nothing more than tyres, a torch light and boxes, takes them on their travels. When they join the circus they encounter The Fool, brilliantly played by Bart Soroczynski. The Fool is the opposite to Zampano’s hard man act. He is an artist. He plays the accordion and rides a unicycle at the same time. Watching him do that on the stage at Richmond is breath-taking. The Fool gives Gelsomino a trumpet and encourages her to express herself. He suggests that they run away together. In short he wants to show her the door marked freedom. Gelsomina does begin to play the trumpet and Zampano uses her skill to make money. But Gelsomina rejects The Fool’s offer of escape. She somehow feels a loyalty to Zampano. In this conflicted feeling, should I stay or should I go, Gelsdomina surely faces the dilemma we all feel about our lives.
Insanely jealous of The Fool and driven by notions of manly honour, Zampano beats the Fool up. He doesn’t realise his own strength and so The Fool dies from his punches. It takes this brutal act for Gelsomina to overcome her fear of Zampano. She says after the murder, “I’m not afraid of you anymore.” The Fool has played the Christ like role of liberation through martyrdom. Gelsomina runs away from Zampano and now it is his turn to feel pain and loss. Missing her terribly, he desperately tries to find her. He eventually speaks to a woman in a village who remembers Gelsomina. She used to sing and play the trumpet in the village square. Zampano asks impatiently where is she now? “Oh she’s dead,” replies the woman. Zampoano breaks down. He is too late. We kill the things we love.
La Strada is a wonderful story about the human condition, both the tragedy and the joy and this production is remarkable. The company manage to create a repertoire of human emotions from the yearning to the playful with the minimum of props. They convey the waves by leaning in and rocking back, they create rain drops with finger clicks, they evoke being on the road with just tyres and a torch light and so on and so on. It is a joy to watch.
I was mesmerised, spellbopund and moved. A powerful production which will delight and disturb. Go see.