Commedia of Errors at South Bank Playhouse

Benjamin Gould's new company brings subversive sensibility of Italian theatre to Irish epic The Tain

Commedia dell’Arte is one of the oldest forms of theatre in Europe, and arguably gave birth to the world's first professional, commercial companies.

It emerged in Italy in the 16th century in response to the political and economic crisis of the time and was usually played in the open air, on rickety fit-up stages with random collections of props substituting for sets or scenery.

Its full name is Commedia dell’Arte all’Improvviso – ‘the comedy of the art of improvisation’ – which suggests, wrongly, that the actors simply make it up as they go along. Ornate masks are employed to create the individual characters, many of which are instantly recognisable human types. But enough of the serious explanation, Commedia dell’Arte is, above all, great fun, as Belfast audiences are soon to discover.

28-year-old Benjamin Gould has been absent from his native Belfast since he left Methodist College and took off to study for a degree in drama at Liverpool’s Hope University.

At first he was unconvinced that he had chosen the right course, but in his final year he discovered the work of ground-breaking practitioners like Jerzy Grotowski, the innovative Polish director, and the German playwright and theatre maker, Bertolt Brecht.

Looking back, he still experiences the thrill of seeing Deborah Warner’s landmark production of Brecht’s Mother Courage at the National Theatre in London, with Cork actress Fiona Shaw in the title role.

'Writers like Brecht are so exciting,' says Gould. 'That moment when the fourth wall is pulled down and the audience assumes an integral part of the action can be wonderful, if done right.'

A lot of the success of such productions rest on the willingness of the audience to get involved. 'But,' argues Gould, 'In the UK and Ireland, there is a reticence, a fear almost, of engaging with the actors in a tangible way.

'People don’t feel safe, somehow. Their apprehension can transfer to the actors, who have to work that much harder to make the thing work. What the audience doesn’t realise is that, equally, the actor has to feel safe in order to get that first laugh, but when it comes it is really rewarding.'

Having got the academic aspects of his degree out of the way, Gould felt impelled to step up the ante and pursue the brand of intensely physical theatre that had begun to fire his imagination. He took a Master’s degree in acting at the Academy for Live and Arts (ALRA) in London, during which he had his first encounter with Commedia dell’Arte style of theatre.

'We had a lecture from Didi Hopkins, who is the Commedia advisor to the National Theatre,' he recalls. 'She explained how Commedia came out of Venice and was a popular form of street theatre based on improvised scenarios between stock characters – masters, servants, lovers.

'We had been set an assignment to create a new, original piece of work. I was keen to do something in this style. I found a company called Fraternal Compagnia in Bologna, which offered a Commedia course and I went there for three weeks.

'The result of my studies was a 25-minute solo performance, based on a series of satires drawn from Italian folk tales, ecclesiastical history, the Commedia dell'Arte tradition and its medieval precursors. The Italian actor [and playwright] Dario Fo did a famous version of them, entitled Mistero Buffo.'

Gould's brief stay in Bologna proved to be merely an introduction to a long love affair with Italy and the Commedia traditions. He went on to study, create and perform in Paris, Bergamo and, again and again, in Bologna. One of his most influential mentors has been Carlo Boso, of the Academie Nationale des Arts in Paris, a leading light in Commedia, with whom he has taken and led a number of courses and workshops.

'Looking back, it was a wonderful time. We performed in some beautiful venues, in piazzas, in little courtyards, in big public spaces, often under a big blue sky. It was a brilliant learning process. I became immersed in the way in which the Commedia companies operated back in the 16th century. They would go on great tours around Europe and often took the news with them from place to place.

 

'The shows were improvised out of current events and were topical and, sometimes controversial, as they commented on real people and political situations. The companies avoided censorship because they never wrote anything down. There were no texts, no scripts.

'But people flocked to see them because they ridiculed things that were ridiculous, but they couldn’t be touched, which really inflamed the authorities. Once people start to laugh at the status quo and to mock authority figures, the powers-that-be are in danger of going under. The only subject that they steered clear of was religion because the Church in Italy at the time was so powerful.'

Just over a year ago, Gould fulfilled what was becoming an inevitable ambition and formed his own Commedia company, riskily named Commedia of Errors. It makes its first appearance in Belfast's South Bank Playhouse off the Ormeau Road from December 11 – 13, with a typically hands-on new version of the great Irish mythical romp The Tain.

After all his wanderings in Europe, playing in Italian piazzas under cloudless blue skies, there is only one question to ask of a man who is about to set up a new independent theatre company in drizzly Belfast at a time when the arts are suffering potentially fatal funding cuts: Why?

'I’m a bit of home bird,' Gould grins. 'After working in Europe, I was in London for about five years. It’s not a very good place in which to work or survive. When I came back to Belfast in May, it felt right. I know things are not in great shape here financially, but if you want to make your own work you have to follow your convictions.

'I was encouraged by the success in London of our first production, which was my own take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It was heavily adapted, with some of the original text and some additional sections, which I wrote in Shakespearean iambic pentameters. It was a kind of hybrid version, performed by seven actors in modern English and the audiences really loved it.'

They certainly did, as did the critics, one of whom wrote:  'Ben Gould’s brave adaptation is not for traditionalists; it is funn ... the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is heartily mocked through the simple ploy of exaggerating just about everything.'

This is the madcap approach one can expect from Commedia of Errors, whose company manager is Gould’s fiancée, Claire McMahon, a young actress who recently notched up warm reviews for her performance in Jimmy McAleavey’s new play Unhome for Tinderbox at The MAC.

Gould is a shining example of a practitioner who is so well informed about his art that he can throw the rule book out of the window and rely heavily on improvisation. He says The Tain, with its derring-do plot and overblown heroic characters, is a heaven-sent vehicle for a Commedia-style treatment. It involves multi-roles, music, slapstick, physical comedy and audience interaction.

'I think that Northern Ireland audiences will really enjoy our style of work,' Gould concludes. 'We are opening the show at the South Bank Playhouse and then taking it to a festival in Milan. The Belfast performances will be kind of a showcase to test the temperature of the water.

'Through my contacts in Italy and the fact that I speak Italian, I was asked to take a show to the Teatro Oscar as part of Studio Novecento's International Theatre Festival later in the month. I love the idea of taking a big Irish epic tale to Italy and performing it in Commedia style. It brings together so many things that are dear to me.'

The Tain runs at the South Bank Playhouse, Belfast from December 11 – 13.