Saturday, 19 August 2017

Theatre: Don Camillo and Peppone (4 Stars)

The story of Don Camillo and Peppone is well known in Italy, and it's possible that some of my readers in other European countries might know it. A series of eight books were written by the author Giovannino Guareschi and published from 1948 to 1996, some of them posthumously. Five of the books were adapted as films from 1952 to 1965. In 1980 there was a 13-part television series with new stories based on the two characters. This year a German language musical premiered in Austria. And then there's this play that was written by the German playwright Gerold Theobalt in 1999, loosely based on the first novel in the series.

Camillo and Peppone were best friends as resistance fighters in Italy during World War Two. Now that the war is over they live in the same small village, Boscaccio, but they have developed in different directions. Camillo has become a Catholic priest, while Peppone has become a Communist and is now the village's mayor. They are now enemies, although they ironically support one another's causes. Camillo admires the social justice demanded by the Communist Party, while Peppone is secretly a devoted Catholic.

Camillo is able to talk to Jesus, who spends most of his time hanging on the cross in front of the church, but occasionally goes for a walk round the village to watch what people are doing. Camillo expects Jesus to support him against Peppone, but most of the time he says that Peppone is right. Jesus is usually invisible to everyone except Camillo, but he appears to an old woman who won't stop shouting his name.

The play incorporates themes from Romeo and Juliet. The son of a Communist and the daughter of a rich land owner fall in love with one another, but their parents don't allow them to be together because the village is in the middle of a general strike. The young couple decide to kill themselves so they can at least be together in death.

It's a raucous, irreverent comedy which makes fun of both the Catholic Church and Communism. Only two things can turn best friends into enemies: religion and politics. The message of the play is simply that people can only be helped if the Catholic Church and the Communist Party unite. The two organisations have more in common than they realise. I doubt Karl Marx or the Pope would agree, but it's a thought that might be attractive to some of the people in the audience.

The play was performed as part of the annual Freilichtspiele ("open air plays") in Schwäbisch Hall. The performance took place on the 53 steps of the ancient St. Michael's Church, which was built in 1156. It was amusing to see the actors running up and down the steps. No compromises were made; the original play was adapted to make full use of the steps.

The performance was sold out. It seemed that everyone enjoyed it, despite the low temperature and cold wind. When it began at 8:30 pm the natural light was bright enough. By the end of the evening -- it finished at 10:40 pm -- floodlights were needed to show us what was happening on stage.

I very rarely watch live plays. I don't like their transitory nature. I already feel bad that this play will probably never be released on Blu-ray, and if it is it won't be on the 53 steps of Schwäbisch Hall. Maybe I should watch plays more often. If they were all this good I would.

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