The Barbican has played a big part in familiarising contemporary British audiences with international theatre work, with a programming range that is both geographically and stylistically broad. Some of its presentations, it is true, have consisted of the kind of avant-garde continental European director’s theatre that gets right up the noses of some Britons. To those folk, I would argue that the current offering illustrates the precept “Be careful what you wish for”.
Mid-20th-century Neapolitan actor/director/playwright Eduardo De Filippo was fiercely resistant to fripperies of staging, performance or subject. He wrote about ordinary people, like the apartment dwellers here who imagine that one of their number has been murdered and that another holds the evidence, even though the latter belatedly protests that he had dreamt it all. The production by Toni Servillo (star of Oscar-winner The Great Beauty) from the Piccolo Teatro of Milan sometimes feels over-stretched on the Barbican stage: he and designer Lino Fiorito are almost compelled to deepen their stage picture with teetering towers of chairs and a granny annexe behind a gauze, since for much of the continuous hour and three-quarters there is nothing on the forestage except a couple of kitchen chairs. All is white – not the designer white that makes a statement in itself, but the white of bare simplicity.
Servillo’s staging is likewise resolutely unfussy, and centres on his own excellent, finely controlled performance as Alberto, the repentant accuser. Alberto gradually learns that his dream has revealed a reality at least as unpleasant as the non-murder, as friends and relations conspire against each other and him to conceal the ugly truth that isn’t even the truth. (Alberto’s sibling tension with his brother Carlo is brought out partly by Servillo’s casting of his own brother Peppe.)
It is an admirable production, but far from compelling for non-Italophones shackled to the surtitles. The play is far more “tell” than “show”, or at any rate it shows through the characters’ words rather than physical actions. For most of the evening, the picture before us is simply of people sitting on or standing by those ordinary chairs. Without an exuberance of performance or staging, which would be counter to the entire spirit of the thing, it serves principally as a reminder that director’s theatre can have benefits of its own.