Monaciello, Interiors and other shows at Napoli Teatro Festival Italia, 2009

JOYCE MCMILLAN on MONACIELLO etc., at Napoli Teatro Festival Italia,
Naples, for Scotsman Arts, 11.6.09

OUTSIDE AN ARCHED doorway in a sloping, cobbled lane off the Via Toledo,
Andy Arnold – artistic director of the Tron Theatre – is standing in the
middle of a small media scrum.  There are three or four television cameras,
some  reporters scribbling notes, a couple of sceptical-looking theatre
critics from Milan or Rome standing to one side; among the crowd waiting in
the doorway, a radio journalist moves to and fro, interviewing everyone
willing to speak.

This is the press night of Monaciello, The Little Monk, the Tron Theatre of
Glasgow’s co-production with the newly-fledged Napoli Teatro Festival
Italia; and although the audience in necessarily small – only around
fifteen people at a time can make the descent into the old underground
tunnels of Naples where the show is set – the local interest seems intense.
“It’s a bit unnerving,” says Arnold, cheerfully, “having a show that’s a
huge hit before anyone’s even seen it.”  Then he wanders off to negotiate
with the television teams, who want to carry their cameras down the 186
steps into the dark chambers and passages below, and to film during the
performance.

The level of interest is hardly surprising, though, given the intense
connection between Arnold’s show and one of the main aims of the Festival,
as conceived by its quietly determined artistic boss Renato Quaglia.  For
what Quaglia seems to want, at the deepest level, is to use this Festival
to help give the city of Naples back to its people, both by disentangling
some of the most disturbing threads of its recent history, and by opening
up and reclaiming unused physical spaces, all over the city, that have
powerful historic and symbolic relationships with that history.

Arnold’s show not only brings a wider public into the Sotteraneo, the
fantastic network of tank, channels and wells carved from soft volcanic
rock that, for 2000 years, kept every building in Naples supplied with its
own source of water.  It also retells a key 20th century story, about how
the Sotteraneo was used, during the Second World War, as a giant bomb
shelter; and during an intense year or so of preparation, Arnold and the
writer on the project, Megan Barker, have been in touch with dozens of
people in Naples who have stories to tell of that extreme and horrifying
time, creating a show – performed almost entirely in Italian and
Neapolitan, by a cast of five  actors and musicians from Scotland and seven
from Italy – that forges a powerful link between this Glasgow-based theatre
company, and the city where they have been working.

The show itself, when it comes, is necessarily brief  at only 40 minutes,
and more impressionistic than documentary.  Instead of offering the
reassurance of familiar 1940’s wart-movie imagery, Monaciello plunges us
straight into an almost gothic world that evokes the subjective terror, and
occasional human celebration, of people living through a nightmare, doomed
either to betray or to be betrayed, driven to bizarre acts of horror in the
quest for survival, and – in the case of the women – routinely forced to
prostitute themselves; and those looking for straightforward history will
be disappointed.

But it’s no accident that it was Arnold, 19 years ago, who opened up the
Arches under Central Station as a new “found space” in Glasgow, a city
which used its year as European City of Culture in 1990 as an opportunity
to recognise and acknowledge the  grandeur and the pity of its own
traumatic industrial history.  Now, Naples is visibly hungry for the same
kind of recognition, the chance to retell its story in a wider context that
can help change meanings and heal historic wounds; and Arnold has created a
vivid and loving show that should play a vital part in that process.

Not every show in the Festival takes place in a found space, of course.
The other Scottish-based company in Naples, Matthew Lenton’s Vanishing
Point, are presenting their acclaimed international co-production Interiors
at the little café-theatre Sannazaro in the main shopping street, famed for
its former career as a porn cinema.  And on a hot Tuesday night, in the
conventional space of the Teatro Augusto, it was inspiring to watch the
passionate solo performer Giulio Cavalli stride the stage for 70 minutes in
his driven, brilliantly paced version of the political polemic L’Apocalisse
Rimandata, in a version by Italian radical theatre veterans Dario Fo ande
Franca Rame, with furious projected images, drawn by Fo himself, of a
self-inflicted human doomsday.

But it was in another “found space – the great, crumbling central courtyard
of the vast and notorious 18th century poorhouse, the Albergo Dei Poveri –
that I felt the huge  potential civic energy of this Festival building up
again, as a packed audience on  a huge rotating central seating rig found
themselves gasping at the sheer visual spectacle and beauty of  Chay Yew’s
Le Citta Visibili, a massive Festival co-production inspired by the work of
Italo Calvino, and co-produced by the Naples and Singapore Festivals.  The
show is a surreal modern tale about links between the Italian fashion
industry and hard-driven factory workers in China that has something to say
about race and exploitation, but mainly just takes the breath away with its
dazzling use of sound, light, and big-screen visuals in one of the most
grand and melancholy ruined settings in Europe.  The night was warm, and
the audience seemed  thrilled; not only regaining a mighty space long
hidden by the fear and shame of those once forced to live there, but also
acknowledging the eternal human struggle against exploitation and
oppression that forms part of the story of every city, and that becomes
slightly easier to bear – or easier to bear with joy – when we recognise
that we are not alone, and neither, in their conflict and complexity, are
the cities in which most of us now live.

Napoli Teatro Festival Italia runs until 28 June, with performances of
Monaciello until 21 June, and of Interiors until 14 June.

ENDS ENDS

ENDS ENDS

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