Monday, 6 April 2009

Roberto Benigni, Tuttodante (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London)

Over the past number of years the Italian actor Roberto Benigni has been performing the work of Dante Alighieri to delighted and enthusiastic audiences around Italy and now, around the world. He is known for his exuberance and energy, and these were much in evidence last evening at Tuttodante in his single London date on his world tour. Every Italian in London seems to have turned out for the show and were in festive mood when he appeared on stage. He decided to do the show in English, and this became a recurring gag throughout the performance, an assurance that he was, in fact, speaking in English. His English was, in fact, a lot better than he let on, as he often used idioms and slang words that would not be characteristic of a beginner. The audience were clearly delighted when he did turn to Italian and would sometimes shout out ‘in italiano!’ I imagine that the decision to do the show in Italian was one of consideration for the audience in London, but I do rather wonder if it was entirely successful. But there was something moving about him trying to find the right word, using a language that was a mixture of Italian and English, a plurilinguismo worthy of its subject-matter.

I remember when Benigni devised this show and came to Bologna with it: tickets were impossible to get hold of and I did not get to see it. When this opportunity arose, I was more than ready to seize it, with both hands. (I was invited to the show by my generous benefactor at Pembroke.)

Benigni is a man of extraordinary energy and passion and his love of Dante is clear, sincere, and profound. But most of the show was taken up with what might be called a preamble, a funny and at times excoriating set of observations on the absurdity of contemporary Italy. A key figure in this comedy is Silvio Berlusconi, and Benigni often referred to Berlusconi as a highly sexual man, a man who likes to be photographed with pretty girls, in various states of undress, etc. Andreotti, too, made an appearance, characterised as a man who has been granted eternal life in Italian politics. Benigni then proceeded to a long introduction to Inferno 5, the canto of the lustful in the first circle of Hell, interspersed with explications and close readings. Particularly powerful was the way in which he deployed a profoundly affective reading of the New Testament, especially the woman touching the hem of Christ’s garment, in his reading of Francesca’s Amor ch’a nullo amato amar perdona (Inf 5. 103). It was much appreciated by the audience who burst into applause, and it was, for me, an indication of a brilliance that I was not quite expecting. The performance culminated in a recitation of the full canto, beginning to end. It was a fitting way to end the evening.

What I enjoyed about this was the strong sense that it was explaining itself; the poetry took centre-stage and was given room to breathe. What was clear too was Benigni’s sense of the poem’s searing relevance to contemporary society, that it is as much an indictment of our time as it is of Dante’s own time. This is the performance of a committed, engaged, and public intellectual, a man trying to make sense of his world, with a certain knowledge of the injustice that marks it, and deep sense of indignation at the continuance of those wrongs. What is striking is that I could be talking as much about Dante there as I am about Benigni.


Lucas Esandi said...

Hello, my name is Lucas, I'm from Argentina and I'm 25 years old. I lived in Italy for a year playing basketball in the 2004/2005 season. Now I'm living in Argentina studying at UNLP (Universidad Nacional de La Plata). I'm doing my research on Dante and I found your blog googling "Enciclopedia Dantesca".
I had the chance to see Benigni at Buenos Aires performing Tutto Dante. So exciting!
I'm glad to see we both have similar interests.

Miglior acque said...

Hi Lucas, thanks for reading. Good to hear you are working on Dante, that will keep you going! What did you think of Benigni?

Lucas Esandi said...

I really love what he does.
He made me read again the Divine Comedy, but in italian this time. That's the reason I chose Dante for my research. I do love both of them.

I ocasionally write on
Even though I don't know if he deserves the Nobel -he didn't write the DV- I do know that what he does it's worth.

You might want to read the text I wrote when he came in Argentina:

I'd like to be in touch with you if you may. I added your blog to the "blogs I read".

Take care!


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