19 May 2015

commedia dell’arte

This week on drama* on the waterfront, Colleen McColl, publicist for A Servant to Two Masters, delves into the commedia dell’arte style of theatre

commedia dell’arte = ‘comedy of the profession’, ‘theatre of the professional’, ‘comedy of art’

One of the most interesting things about working as a publicist is delving into other various aspects of the production and finding out about things not previously known. A Servant to Two Masters offered me a wonderful  chance to look more closely at commedia dell’arte.

Google is a wonderful friend!

It appears commedia dell'arte originated in streets and market places of Italy during the Italian Renaissance.

Commedia was a hugely popular form of theatre with street performers. They offered improvised stories usually representing fixed social types, stock characters, such as  foolish old men, mischievous servants and young lovers. Actors joined the company very often at a young age and in each production played one character – it became their specialty. They spent their whole careers with that same company. As they aged they would moved into other roles eventually ending up as the old master.

It was known as a colourful and extremely theatrical art form which allowed improvised scenarios that facilitated a comic plot to arrive at a humorous climax, with a happy ending.

The performers, who used masks with exaggerated comic features to draw additional attention to themselves and complement their physical and acrobatic skills, eventually teamed up in troupes of actors, often with a travelling stage, to firmly establish commedia as a genre in it's own right by the mid-1500s.  They performed outside and relied on various props in place of extensive scenery.

These "commedia troupes" performed for and were accessible to all social classes. Language was no barrier, with their skilful mime, stereotyped stock characters, traditional lazzi's (signature stunts, gags and pranks), masks, broad physical gestures, improvised dialogue and clowning they became widely accepted wherever they travelled. In later years, the tradition spread all over Europe, eventually adopting a major French influence where many of the scenarios were scripted into commedia-style plays. It is from the commedia world where such characters as Arlecchino (Harlequin), Columbine, Punchinello (Punch), The Doctor, The Captain and Pantalone emerged.

It was fascinating to learn that during this period, commedia dell’arte was the only form of theatre where women were allowed on stage.

A Servant to Two Masters was originally written in 1745 by Carlo Goldoni as part of the commedia dell’arte style of theatre which was still very popular at the time. He was commissioned to devise a play for a famous Harlequin. The story goes that Goldoni wrote it with a lot of room for improvisation (the scenario was pinned to the side of the stage), as was the tradition at that time, and then went away and left them to it. The production was a huge success but when he returned he was appalled by the indulgence of the actors.  In a fit of pique he wrote down a text for the players to learn and thus dealt a fatal blow to the centuries-old tradition of commedia dell’arte. It was the birth of farce as we know it today.

Award winning dramatist Lee Hall (The Pitmen Painters, Billy Elliot) has adapted Goldoni’s A Servant to Two Masters for our current production at Circa. He offers us a fabulous new, rapid fire version with the language updated to now to create a pacey, action-packed physical comedy.   In light of my Google time travelling, I am astounded by Lee Hall’s ability to adapt and re-boot this timeless classic so that it is relevant, funny and highly entertaining to a contemporary audience.


All Photographs by Stephen A'Court.

A Servant to Two Masters runs until 30 May.  Tickets available online:  www.circa.co.nz

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