Drayton Arms Theatre, London (6 -18 September 2015)
Reviewed by Alessandra De Martino
Eduardo De Filippo’s theatre continues to create interest in the UK. The first play by the Neapolitan actor/author to be performed in this country was Questi fantasmi! (Too Many Ghosts!) staged in 1958, but it was his own appearance at the Aldwych as Gennaro Jovine in Napoli milionaria! in 1972, that generated a real passion for his theatre and his minimalist acting style. Since then, his plays have been performed regularly on British stages, and actors of the calibre of Lawrence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Ian McKellen, Michael Pennington and Judi Dench have brought his characters onto the stage. The most renowned performances are certainly those by Joan Plowright and Judi Dench as Filumena Marturano, the protagonist of the homonymous play, in 1977 and 1998 respectively. The latest English production of Filumena Marturano, originally written in 1946 by Eduardo for his sister Titina, confirms how this is very much a contemporary play, whose main theme, the right to live a dignified life, is at the centre of one of the biggest tragedies of the “developed” West: the migrants’ and refugees’ exodus. This is one of the points which emerged during a Q&A session I was invited to take part in, conducted by the assistant director Alex Israel, after Saturday’s performance of Filumena by the Don Minzone Production, directed by Tino Orsini and staged at the Drayton Arms Theatre in London. The first question Alex asked me was why De Filippo has become such a well-known and appreciated author in the UK and, I added, in the world. The main reason is the universality of the themes of his theatre, among which is, first and foremost, equality, followed by respect of the law and solidarity among human beings. I often describe De Filippo as a visionary since, more than half a century ago, he brought onto the stage issues such as prostitution, abortion, organised and juvenile crime, and social discrimination which are still at the centre of our society. In the same way George Orwell, in 1948, wrote his visionary book 1984, presenting an apparently inconceivable apocalyptic future which is now our normal present.
This production boasts an excellent cast of actors who have conveyed the essence of this powerful drama of denied rights: the right to be a mother, to equality, to have a family, to lead a dignified life. Kathryn Worth plays Filumena, an ex-prostitute who has lived for twenty-five years more uxorio though as a caring wife, with rich and flamboyant Domenico (David Houston) who rescued her from the brothel where he met her. She has devoted her own life to running Domenico’s confectionary business while he was away enjoying his life with other women. Unbeknown to him, she has three sons: Riccardo (Arron Blake), Umberto (Matias Di Masso) and Michele (David Wentworth) and, in order to legitimate them, she feigns a deadly illness and makes Domenico marry her on her deathbed. After the priest has declared them husband and wife, Filumena comes back from the dead and proclaims herself the new Signora Soriano. But this coup de thèátre is not enough to make her the lawful wife of Domenico’s since he has other plans: he intends to have the fraudulent marriage declared null and marry his young lover Diana (Emma Gonnella) who has been brought into the house as a nurse to attend to Filumena’s last hours. The law is against Filumena, as the lawyer Avvocato Nocella (Andrew Armifield) will inexorably explain: only if dead, would Filumena have become Filumena Soriano. But Filumena has a secret weapon: a one hundred liras note where she wrote the date when one of the three sons was conceived with Domenico, who becomes then inevitably tied to her and her sons. The play only apparently has a happy ending that is the wedding between Filumena and Domenico, in the presence of the three legitimised sons. Domenico must accept Filumena’s conditions of total anonymity of the real son in order to enjoy his role of father, or he loses his privilege altogether. Devoted Rosalia (Diana Brooks) and Alfredo (Toni Wredden), together with the housemaid Lucia (Rebecca Cilento) act as ad hoc tension releasers, supporting characters.
This is indeed a notable, very intense performance, and if we were to pick a few points, we could say on the one hand, that it would have been great to see the same passion Kathryn Worth infused in her character, also in the monologues about Filumena’s dilemma whether to have an abortion or keep her child, and in the account of her bleak childhood that led her into prostitution; on the other, that Domenico seems at times a tad too anxious to get over and done with Filumena and jump on sensual Diana.
As to the cultural representation of the play, Carlo Ardito’s translation in Standard English and the Received Pronunciation of some of the characters don’t seem to do full justice to De Filippo, who uses Neapolitan for the majority of his characters. However, it was poignant to see the whole drama develop in the dining room used almost as a boxing ring, though the gigantic backdrop of the Vesuvius and the abundance of flowers displayed around the stage seem to confirm a stereotyped, romantic image of Naples. On the whole, Orsini’s excellent directorial choice to avoid caricatures or exaggerated acting, often used in De Filippo’s British productions, creates a greatly enjoyable show that brings out the dramatic, rather than comic, essence of this masterpiece.