Theatre – The Servant of Two Masters

Venue: Actor’s Pulse, Redfern
Written By: Carlo Goldoni
Directed By: Anna Jahjah

Written in 1746, this popular Italian comedy while grounded in the tradition of Commedia dell’arte, moves beyond it, bringing a greater depth of character and theme. At the same time it maintains the playful exuberance of the older style in which improvisation and physical high jinks were key features. The play’s good humour – and ensemble cast – make it a happy choice for Anna Jahjah’s Théâtre Excentrique workshop production.

Cast and creatives of The Servant of Two Masters.
Cast and creatives of The Servant of Two Masters.

The servant of the title, a very engaging Truffaldino, hits upon the idea that he could be better paid and hence better fed, if he served two masters. His deception gives rise to some very funny stage business over letters he is sent to collect (he cannot read), dishes he attempts to serve to both masters while eagerly feeding himself and sly digs at the ad-libbing of an actor’s profession. As it happens, his first master is a Turinese woman, Beatrice Rasponi, disguised as her brother, Federigo, who was killed in duel by her lover, the suave gallant, Florindo. On her arrival in Venice in search of her lover who has fled legal reprisal, her deception sets in motion a tragi-comical tale.

The play opens in a Venetian home with the betrothal of the delightful ingénue, Clarice, daughter of rich merchant, Pantelone, to her self-indulgent suitor, Silvio, son of Dr Lombardi. However, the young lover’s bubble is cruelly burst by the arrival of Truffaldino with the announcement that his master, Federigo, waits below. Oh dreadful consternation … for Clarice was formerly contracted to marry Federigo, and Pantelone feels bound to honour the promise.

This nonsense gives rise to Truffaldino’s hilarious response to the news of his master’s apparent death, to the comical recognition scene between an inn-keeper and Beatrice, the funny revelation of Beatrice’s disguise to an amazed and pleased Clarice, and a ridiculous duel between Beatrice/Federigo and Silvio beautifully performed in slow mo. On the other hand it is also the means of revealing the romantic Silvio’s churlish vanity in standing by while his poor Clarice threatens to kill herself.

We know, of course, it will turn out well and along the rapidly paced journey, but there are many surprises. The servant-clown, Truffuldino, appears as a master-of-ceremonies, for whom the players are puppets, to be arranged and directed at his pleasure. While this reversal perhaps reflects the fact that Goldoni wrote the play at the request of Antonio Sacco, a professional zanni, it also provides the opportunity for some charming ensemble choreography at each change of scene.

Another surprise was the sympathy shown towards women by Goldoni. It is made clear that Beatrice’s disguise, a punishable crime, is a means of escaping male tyranny and of exerting a personal freedom. However, she is not blind to her fate and in her appeal to the inn-keeper she begs him to help her “to her liberty” as it “twill not last long”. It is Clarice’s maid, a lively Smeraldino who most vigorously denounces the prevailing double standard. After condemning men as cruel, suspicious, bullying and murderous, she concludes that since “you’ve got to marry one or other of them someday … since you’ve got to take your nasty medicine, take it!”

While most of these middle-class characters display self-interest, ranging from Beatrice tricking Pantelone into giving her money to Pantalone preferring Federigo as suitor because the Rasponis are richer than the Lombardis, all is forgiven, and all is revealed. For love of the feisty Smeraldino, Truffaldino gives up his double wage (and dinners) and we celebrate the triumph of generosity with a joyous dance from Silvio in which he is joined by the ebullient ensemble.

A charmingly and cleverly directed production by Jahjah that sustains the rollicking fun throughout. While there are considered touches of modern times, for instance, the high energy performance of “Girls”, the gestures, stance, exaggerated emotions, and the Commedia masks worn by several characters, identify this performance as an 18th-century Italian comedy, and one still very capable of bewitching a 21st- century audience.

Congratulations must go to the culturally diverse cast, Aishwarya Arun, Valentina Barbera, Mariane Elias, Perla Escalon, Lambert Feist, Aladin Halim, Basile Mellac, Wala’a Meshref, Imroz Moyeen, Shiva O’Carroll, Marie Pol Moury and Joseph Schneider; to choreographer, Basma Mahbub Moyeen and guitarist, Nowroz Moyeen, and to Jahjah’s assistants, Bérangére Graham Dupuy and Pauline Evans, for a splendid evening’s entertainment.

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