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C’era una volta: Review of Fiabe Italiane

Matthew Reza

Oxford Italian Play: Fiabe Italiane
8-12 March (Week 8), Burton Taylor Studio, 21:30-22:30

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For the second Italian play in as many years, directors Aldo Grassi Pucci and Michael Subialka are joined by Alberica Bazzoni, who set out together on a quest to bring a rooted and cherished tradition from the peninsula to life. This year also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Italo Calvino’s famous landmark anthology of Italian fairy-tales, Fiabe Italiane.

Several factors make the play worth attending, even for an audience without any Italian. Firstly, these tales draw from a vast web of shared themes and characters whose tasks, pitfalls and successes can be gleaned not only from what one might recognise from childhood, but also by the energetic and passionate performances on display. Secondly, English synopses are provided, thereby adding a delightful measure of complexity by giving written summaries of transcribed variants of tales that come from an oral tradition that are in turn being performed on the stage via a manuscript of tales written down. A late-1970s Calvino would no doubt have been delighted.

Moreover, the framing device of a discovered collection of stories not only allows for a connection between otherwise discrete tales that come from Genoa to Palermo to Verona, but also cleverly provides a stage on which to enact them. We are not the audience, we are instead witnesses to a group telling each other stories, and the meeting place of travellers who sup and tell each other tales has a passing echo of Calvino’s own famous Il Castello dei Destini Incrociati (The Castle of Crossed Destinies).

What works particularly well is the back and forth between the travellers and the stories they tell, as they jump in and out of their assigned characters in order to change roles, watch their companions, and pass around the book of tales from which they read. The attempt to render difficult moments on stage ¬Рsuch as magic, a giant, or metamorphosis Рis done with an endearing lightness of touch as the travellers use what they have at hand to convince each other of the scenes they are setting.

The Italian spoken by the cast, which comprises both native and non-native speakers, is clear and confident, and the occasional slip rather reinforces the oral, unscripted and constantly changing medium of storytelling. In turn, the variety of accents is a reminder of the international reach of the fairy-tale heritage.

There are stirring performances from all, and moments to look out for include: Valeria Taddei as the commanding narrator, Jonny Wiles’ both comical and terrifying Zio Lupo, Max Reynolds’ homage to Don Corleone, and Niccolò Pescetelli’s existential ennui as a world-weary prince.

The unavoidably codified gender roles that underpin the fairy-tale – a king who commands; a princess who apparently needs saving, and often, in turn, marrying; the competition between men over said princess or daughter who has no say in such matters – presented editorial difficulties in a contemporary setting. On the one hand, in order to remain faithful to the original anthology, characters have not been changed around, but on the other, all the performers play both male and female roles (to hilarious ends), and the choice of the small corpus of tales should be noted. Among them, Fantaghirò persona bella (Fantaghirò the Beautiful) is the story of three daughters who volunteer to go to war (despite warning of avoiding “womanly behaviour”), and in La sposa che viveva di vento (The Bride who Lived on Wind), through her cunning, the princess wins the riches of the prohibitively avaricious prince, who is mortally overcome on seeing his money spent. The melancholic and frightened male protagonists in La camicia dell’uomo contento (The Happy Man’s Shirt) and Il paese dove non si muore mai (The Land Where you Never Die) are limp and cowardly, and obstinate in I Biellesi, gente dura (The Biellesi, Stubborn Folk). All the performances throughout are wonderfully hyperbolic and appropriately so, given the larger-than-life and extreme characters that populate fairy-tales, and they are accompanied by occasional folk dancing and folk songs, a touch naturally absent in the original anthology.

As the storyteller Gioia Timpanelli recalls of the Sicilian folktale saying, ‘si cunta e si recunta’ —it is told and retold—: Fiabe Italiane provides an old tradition with new energy without taking itself too seriously, and promises an evening of cautionary tales, vengeful deities, and mirth. Above all, this evening is, as the time-honoured tradition of storytelling assures, entertaining and fun.

Matthew Reza is Casual Lecturer and Italian Language Tutor in the Sub-Faculty of Italian, Oxford.‚Ä®