Thursday, 29 March 2012

Theatre review: Filumena

Once a prostitute, Filumena was taken from the brothel by Domenico and put up in a little flat as his mistress. But even after his wife died, he still only kept her there, refusing to marry her and carrying on with other women. Now in her forties, Filumena is on her deathbed and convinces Domenico to marry her - at which point she makes a "miraculous" recovery, just in time to stop him marrying his new girlfriend. Set in the bright, sunny courtyard of the wealthy Domenico's house in 1940s Naples, Filumena is largely concerned with the other big secret the title character has been keeping: Her three grown-up sons by different fathers (one of whom is Domenico) who live in town with no idea of who their real mother is. Robert Jones' set effectively evokes the warm, sunny mood of Eduardo De Filippo's play, but despite a great cast led by the always-watchable Samantha Spiro, Michael Attenborough's production at the Almeida fails to come to life.

Perhaps the location has been taken a bit too literally: The lazy Mediterranean atmosphere infects the play's pace, which never achieves the lightness of touch it surely needs, and far too often leaves you realising that the line that just went by was meant to be a joke. I can't fault the cast: Spiro is as sparky and watchable as ever, and she's supported well. Clive Wood starts a bit shakily but his Domenico gains layers as the play goes on. Sheila Reid has a wicked glint in her eye as the elderly housekeeper who claims to have no part in Filumena's machinations but seems to be enjoying their results very much. And Richard Riddell, Luke Norris and Brodie Ross are nicely contrasted as the strangers who find out they're brothers, and gradually start to automatically settle into a sibling relationship. (Though as Christopher said, their costumes weren't flattering enough to make use of Norris' charms; as any fule no, the most flattering clothes for Norris are basically as few of them as possible.)

It took my a while to pinpoint it but I realised my biggest problem was with Tanya Ronder's translation: More than any show I can recall, it betrayed the fact that it was a translation, and sounded almost like a literal one. Christopher, who's done some translating of his own in a different context, thought it was like a first draft where you've got the meaning of what's being said, but haven't yet refined it into something that sounds like spoken English. So the phrasing is ungainly and unnatural, the text full of little references that sound as if they might carry additional meaning in Italian, but in English are just words. (I found myself searching my memory after Filumena made a reference to Diana (Emily Plumtree) sewing buttons, having some vague idea that this meant she was calling her a whore. Surely the reason theatres continually commission new versions of plays that have been translated many times before, is to give the audience references that mean something to them in the here and now, to convey the original author's meaning if not his exact words?) This did explain though why I couldn't see anything wrong with the actors' delivery but still nothing came across; however good an actor is, they can't disguise clumsy dialogue.

I don't think Attenborough is without blame for our failing to engage with Filumena either though. In addition to the attempt to convey lazy Mediterranean charm that ends up taking the bite out of the dialogue, the play itself has some rather big leaps in tone from comedy to pathos, and the production never seems to know how to deal with them. Maybe the speedier delivery I'd have liked would have kept it more firmly in the "joyous" camp the publicity promises, but as it is the show never settles into a steady groove.

Filumena by Eduardo De Filippo in a version by Google Translate Tanya Ronder is booking until the 12th of May at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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