Stage adaptations of films are almost as popular at the moment as stage adaptations of Jane Austen. Manchester Royal Exchange's main winter show was A Night At The Opera; Theatr Clwyd is selling its forthcoming production of Double Indemnity as a version of James M. Cain's novel, but its audience will more readily recall the classic film noir; and, in probably the most ambitious translation, the David Glass Ensemble are tackling what they describe as "Fellini's landmark film."
A certain amount of Fellini's vision persists: the company, dressed largely in elegant monochrome, traverse a stage whose main props are a curved staircase and a quartet of mobile gauze screens through slits in which characters can enter and exit, and one of which even does horizontal service as a bed. The solo scenes and duets acknowledge the film's misleading sense of sparseness (although in fact it used more than 800 actors), and Nino Rota's original score forms the backbone of Paul Sand's musical arrangements for a supper-lounge quartet.
However, the sad fact is that Glass and Sand's version is compelling neither as musical theatre nor, really, as theatre. From the opening children's-TV-presenter yell – "Hi! I'm Paparazzo, and this is where I hang out: Via Veneto!" – one gets that sinking feeling, which is borne out over the next two and a half hours. Dialogue and lyrics sound at best like pedestrian translation, at worst crassly generic to music theatre. It is difficult to tell where Rota's music ends and Sand's begins, but this is the result of a levelling down on Sand's part rather than of his rising to the challenge of emulating one of the great film composers.
As gossip columnist Marcello, Gerard Casey does his best Mastroianni impression; he is moderately comfortable with Marcello's heartlessness and bouts of superficial dissatisfaction, but grows overwrought as the journalist's descent into the inferno of fashionable Rome accelerates. Rachel Pittman makes a fine giggling ingenue; Sarah Parish vamps stylishly as the upper-crust Maddalena (although, in a gown slit that high, she really should wear sheer-to-waist hose); and Johnson Willis doubles ably as the sinister Duke and the morose academic Steiner.
But for every touch of charming success, such as the deliberately sloppily-choreographed nightclub chorus-line, there is another of irritating let-down like the supposedly big atmospheric number during a pagan ritual in the city's catacombs, and several more which just fail to connect. The story's parallels with Dante's Inferno are brought out, but the correspondences reap no appreciable dramatic effect. It is fitting that we should not really care about this collection of gilded, artificial creatures, but unfortunately we do not particularly care about the show either.
David Glass has been genre-hopping in his choice of projects over the last few years, from Gothic melodrama with Gormenghast to modern adventure (The Mosquito Coast). His scope and ambition are admirable, but are in danger of becoming too often indulged at the expense of his theatrical success rate.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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