Monday, 3 July 2017

Chapter 199: "La Strada" at The Other Palace

All production photo credits: Robert Day

"This is an old story... this is a new story... and it starts with the sea... listen to the waves."*

Audrey Brisson - Gelsomina
A tide of bodies leant to the right, then to the left. An assortment of nautical ropes hung against a blue lit backdrop. One of them was a noose. I was at The Other Palace to see the musical adaptation of Fellini's film La Strada (The Road) that came highly recommended by a friend who had seen it the week before. Having not (yet!) seen the film, the moment I saw the trailer I fell for the live music and notes of circus. The story follows a young girl, Gelsomina, an innocent in every sense, who grows up by the sea and is sold by her mother for 10,000 lire to a travelling player Zampanò, a charismatic, angry strongman. They end up in a circus where she meets The Fool, a gentle soul, yet also, as clown, a natural agent provocateur.

Sofie Lybäck & Tatiana Santini
I loved the set that transitioned from the nautical to a Big Top rigged like three large sails with a mast for a king pole. The cast was astonishing, comprising a musical ensemble cum acrobats cum actors. Tragedy was foreshadowed in certain faces, painted pale with red shadows under their eyes, giving them a spectral hue. They were ghosts of circus for me, something uncannily familiar about them. The phenomenal female lead who plays Gelsomina had the voice of an angel, and physically reminded me of circus handbalancer and acrobat Tamzen Moulding**. Later I learned that Audrey Brisson is a bonafide circus acrobat as well as vocalist, playing the young girl Zoé in Cirque de Soleil's Quidam on tour. Quidam is the only Cirque show I have seen, both at the Albert Hall and via a video link thanks to Sean Kempton, the clown in the last ever performance. I was also interested to learn that Audrey's father is Canadian composer Benoit Jutras, who was Cirque's musical director and composed many scores. Gelsomina was played originally by Giulietta Masina, dubbed a female Chaplin, and in her baggy oversized suit and bowler had that Zamponò makes her wear to announce his acts, Brisson was very much the vagabond clown. She had a mischief and a wonder that made the heart lift and tear at the same time, embodying Fellini's vision that "all life is beautiful, for all its tragedy and suffering." 

Bart Soroczynski as The Fool, and cast
Stuart Goodwin's Zampanò bore a striking resemblance to Terry O'Quinn's enigmatic John Locke in the US series Lost, and channelled a terrific anger and strength, by turns menacing and lost himself. I loved the clowning around by Il Matto/The Fool (Bart Soroczynski), Zampanò's nemesis, who had the rangey physique and equilibristics talent of Ellis Grover and Sam Goodburn***. When he stated that he wouldn't be long for this world due to the nature of his job, I thought of all the crazy fools I know taking incredible risks and my heart lurched. As The Fool gave an impression of a tightwire act, with wings on his back, there was a touch of Fevvers in Angela Carter's Nights At The Circus. Soroczynski's actual circus skills impressed as well, both on ladder stilts and again when he played accordion on the unicycle. I also enjoyed the juggling of languages as he addressed Gelsomina in a melée of Spanish, German, French and Italian. The Big Top is a place where the world comes together in one language after all. But it was the touching tenderness with which he sketched out and encouraged Gelsomina's potential, and the light that shone in Gelsomina in turn, that really hit home.

There was a fabulous Carmenesque turn from cabaret singer Tatiana Santini, and the pragmatic resignation of so many widows brought to their knees in post-war Italy eloquently captured by Sofie Lybäck in various incarnations, while Teowa Vuong on violin was a virtuoso. All the ensemble had verve and flair, and it really was a stellar, Felliniesque fablesque production. If you are not a musical fan don't be put off. There are a number of innovative, contemporary musicals out there that capture and convey emotions without the jazz hands, and this is one of them. La Strada runs until 8 July at The Other Palace, see the video trailer below:

The circus consultant on the production of La Strada was Gwen Hales, who has worked as aerial director with La Strada director Sally Cookson on previous productions Peter Pan and Hetty Feather. Other credits include directing CirqOn the Seam's Betwixt and Between and performing/co-creating Pirates of the Carabina's Flown and as consultant on Tobacco Factory Theatre's Sinbad. 


*My impression of the opening lines.

** Tamzen Moulding @invertedco is currently working on a great project The Elusive Circus which I saw in R&D a while back, using The Night Circus as its touchstone. 

*** I first saw Ellis Grover traversing a guiding line on a Big Top at the Edinburgh Festival. He has performed with NoFit State and Pirates of the Carabina, has a great vlog and most recently was at Imagine Luton doing a double-chair stacking tilting trick on a pole that defies the law of gravity, again. 

I met Sam Goodburn at Stratford Circus when he was unicycling across a tightwire for NoFit State. Sam premieres his solo show Dumbstruck, with a good deal of clowning around, at Jacksons Lane tonight (3 July), 7.30pm.


While the production evoked the neo-realism of 1950s Italian cinema, it was rather a surreal afternoon for me. Having spent the morning in A&E with a dislocated finger having my wedding rings sawn off, I thought I must be high on painkillers and seeing things when I bumped into Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber not once, but twice, in the corridor in the interval... I learned later that The Other Palace - so named I assumed as it is opposite Buckingham Palace, but apparently not! - is his project sponsoring a new wave of musical theatre. Even curiouser, it turned out I had last been there as a child when it was The Westminster Theatre, watching my brother on stage, part of a musical theatre company. Mummy's Boy (Oedipus Rex!) is the one that springs to mind.

The juxtaposition of sea and circus in La Strada at The Other Palace struck me as something of a circus zeitgeist given recent posts reporting back on festivals Greenwich and Worthing, and thinking of the Bristol HarbourFest happening too. 

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