“What if women started behaving like men?” one man wondered aloud to another at the bar before Wednesday night’s performance. Both looked uneasy as they weighed up the prospect of Carol Ann Duffy, the poet, recasting Casanova as a woman.
Duffy would be delighted to hear such remarks. But following a busy gender-switching summer, which has seen the likes of Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night played by a woman and Cate Blanchett play Bob Dylan in an award-winning biopic, another question begs to be asked: now the shock value is wearing thin, what is the point?
The answer becomes obvious as soon as Hayley Carmichael’s Casanova makes her entrance. Escaping from one of Venice’s most notorious prisons, she eschews the time-worn clichés associated with her character to reveal a different Casanova. Hers is more Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim: fiery, mischievous, beguilingly beautiful and contrary. This is no shallow seducer. She presents the Casanova legend afresh, in a play that is simultaneously a vivid fantasy, a discourse on the meaning of love and a gripping, quixotic adventure.
Fleeing Venice to go into exile, Casanova’s journey across Europe unfolds in mesmerising, almost dream-like sequences that come to life through stunning lighting effects and Iain Johnstone’s wonderfully evocative music. Tremulous strings combine with music-box innocence, ragtime and accordion waltzes. The menacing threat of the detective pursuing his quarry is heightened by silent-movie suspense chords.
In all of this, sex is conspicuously absent. Seduction is shown as an alluring amalgam of food, language, philosophy and sensualism. Mozart, Voltaire and King George III are just some of those captivated by Casanova’s life-affirming magnetism.
Duffy playfully reworks the legend and there are some engagingly light touches. In Spain Casanova charms an enraged bull, which discovers love and rolls over to have its belly tickled. In another scene, after our heroine becomes pregnant, King George III offers to adopt her child. Perhaps one day, muses the narrator, the child will become Queen of England, or at the very least Princess of Wales.
For all its questioning of sexual roles, Casanova is never in danger of slipping into didacticism; Told By An Idiot’s production is a captivating fairytale of rapture.