The tradition of an Italian-language play at Oxford is a relatively short one. Although the triennial Greek play has been running for over 130 years, becoming a staple of the University’s theatrical calendar, it is only relatively recently that other languages have started to follow suit. The first Italian play, Serata Futurista!, was staged last year, and proved to be a fantastic success. This year, the same directors Aldo Grassi Pucci and Michael Subialka, joined by a third director Alberica Bazzoni, brought the vivacity of the Italian language back on stage with a vivid adaptation of Italo Calvino’s collection of folk tales Fiabe Italiane, published in 1956.
The audience was thrown into a world of magic and imagination from the very first scene. The framework of the show resembled Boccaccio’s Decameron, where, in order to escape the Black Death, the characters decide to wile away time in a villa in the Florentine countryside by telling stories. As in Boccaccio’s Decameron, each character in turn tells a story, so the narration of the play was taken up by each actor in succession. The different roles were also adopted by different actors, leading to endless variety, as well as hilarious gender flexibility, upending fairy-tale stereotypes to include male princesses and female, old, white-bearded men. The balance between narration and acted dialogue allowed the cast to tell ten stories in under one hour.
Much like the time constraint, the limited space of the Burton Taylor studio was exploited at the full. An in-the-round setting gave me the impression of being gathered in a cosy space to listen to stories. The simple set design also infused the production with the imaginative magic of the stories themselves. The less was shown on stage, the more we were left to imagine, which is arguably part of the life-blood of fairy-tales. One thing that perhaps could have been made more prominent was the live music, which was tentatively used only a couple of times. In the scenes where it was used, it created an atmosphere of merriment that seemed appropriate for other tales too, and could potentially have been used for a number of emotive purposes in the differing storylines.
Aside from these features, the most impressive element of the production was the highly expressive acting. The challenge to make the Italian lines accessible to those who don’t master the language was met with English summaries in the detailed programme, but also by gestures and facial expressions, especially from Elsa Pérault, Lily Begg, and Niccolo Pescetelli. The wide range of linguistic abilities from the actors, spanning from native speakers to ab initio learners, became irrelevant in the face of the uniformly great acting. A stubborn ‘Biellese’ (Camilla Dunhill), young Francesco (Max Reynolds), fear-inspiring Death (Salomé Melchior), Fantaghirò (Valeria Taddei), and the Devil (Jonny Wiles) were only a few of the many successful roles, which gave the performance its intrinsic energy.
One thing that struck me were the serene smiles that illuminated the faces of the audience throughout the performance. The audience’s reaction epitomised the spirit of the play: far from being banal, childish, or irrelevant, this adaptation was imbued with the irony and lightness typical of so much of Calvino’s writing. From the I nostri antenati trilogy to his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino looks at the world with a witty smile, but only to give us a lucid and insightful depiction of modern life. Fiabe Italiane has the power to bring to life the sparkling world of folk tales, in a joyous, entertaining, and riveting performance that anyone can enjoy.
The Oxford Italian Play Fiabe Italiane runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until Saturday 12 March. For more information see Facebook event. Tickets can be bought online here or over the phone (01865 305305).