Fellini’s La Strada is an exploration of post-war Italy; a time before industrial boom made Italy a desirable, fashionable destination, when rural swathes of the country were still run on a ‘peasant economy’. The desperate situation of many rural families is reflected Gelsomina’s mother’s willingness to sell her oldest surviving daughter to travelling strongman Zampano.
We experience a journey through Italy from the perspective of Gelsomina. Naive, awkward and often bewildered, Gelsomina quietly observes the actions of Zampano and the other characters she meets along the way – especially the enigmatic fool Il Matto.
The story hints a hidden motives and desires bubbling under the surface of each character, and only revealed by the odd, cryptic line. Gelsomina finally asserts that she knows who Zampano is, but never reveals her new-found knowledge, just as she never confirms whether he is her captor, protector, or both. Instead of a complex, twisting plot, La Strada uses this simmering tension to explore love, loneliness, need and despair. Fellini’s masterpiece is a treasure chest, each layer exposing unresolved emotions.
Sally Cookson’s direction focuses on the physicality of these raw emotions, employing dance, physical theatre and repetitive gesture. The power of each new emotion Gelsomina experiences is amplified by the ensemble, who mirror her actions; both emphasising the crushing sense of despair Gelsomina feels, and also suggesting that her situation is shared by countless other young people across the country.
Cookson uses the rustic, imaginative set design (by Katie Sykes) to highlight the transient nature of Gelsomina and Zampano’s travelling lives. Wooden crates, discarded tyres and a set of handles become the strongman’s trusty American motorbike, before transforming into a bar, the top table at a wedding or a chapel. These simple objects come to life with the energy and fluency of the ensemble cast.
Aideen Malone’s lighting design complements the rustic, low tech feel of La Strada. In one particularly beautiful moment, the second act opens with the image of a circus tent draped across the stage, whilst warm, twinkling lights shine through the cracks in the planks that make up the back wall and floor. This perfect, pastoral image – the sort of wholesome scene Mussolini promoted to his followers – is quickly shattered by the quick-witted Il Matto and his politically charged comedy.
The multi-talented ensemble lift the mood of this otherwise bleak piece with glorious renditions of Benji Bower’s traditional Italian music. From Tatiana Santini’s powerful, soulful vocals, to Sofie Lyback’s astute characterisation, and intricate, slick physical performances from the entire cast, La Strada is a theatrical feast for the eyes and ears.
Bart Soroczyniksi’s Il Matto provides the highlight of the night in his clown act, featuring insightful humour and impressive unicycle acrobatics. As the majority of the material is very emotionally charged, a few more light-hearted moments such as this would serve to break the mood (and showcase the circus skills of this talented cast).
Audrey Brisson’s dreamy vocals evoke the youthful spirit of Gelsomina, and Stuart Goodwin gives a fascinating performance as Zampano – the strong man who seems to be good at heart, yet forced to make bad choices in order to escape poverty.
La Strada is a thought-provoking performance about human relationships and the powerful impact our decisions can have upon the lives of others. The simplicity of the design, warm Italian music and physical nature of the performance emphasise the human struggle at the centre of the story, whilst still capturing a hint of theatrical magic. A beautiful interpretation of Fellini’s filmic masterpiece.
La Strada is at Birmingham Rep until Saturday 13 May and tickets can be found here.