During a life spanning the eighteenth century, Carlo Goldoni, Venice's greatest playwright, wrote around two hundred plays, mainly comedies, transforming Italian drama from the stock scenarios of commedia dell'arte, to a more naturalistic form, investing characters with psychological truth.
Jonathan Munby's splendid ensemble, fresh from tackling the comic tragedy of Lope De Vega (Gentleman from Olmedo), turn their attention to this comedy with a sting in its tail.
Munby and designer Mike Britton exchange classical Spain for the equally blinding sunshine of 1950s Italy. In this post-war paradise, everyone's eager to live La Dolce Vita. But just as in the volatile Verona of Romeo and Juliet, comedy turns to tragedy in the flash of a stiletto as Latin tempers flare and honour demands satisfaction.
In this story of mistaken identity, everyone confuses nice-but-dim Zanetto with his quick-witted twin Tonino. Since Tonino has arranged to elope with Beatrice, while Zanetto is promised an arranged marriage with Dr Balanzoni's daughter Rosaura, and Zanetto's servant with hers, the stage is set for misunderstandings and double-crossings.
They come even more fast and furious as Tonino's best friend Florindo lusts after Beatrice and the unscrupulous priest Pancrazio harbours ungodly feelings for Rosaura. Add a dandyish coxcomb to rival Othello's Roderigo and a crafty old servant and you have all the ingredients for Machiavellian plotting.
The company matches Ranjit Bolt's stylish translation with impeccably stylish fast-moving action, precisely choreographed by Katherine Taylor.
Catherine Cusack and Marianne Oldham are deliciously peachy young ladies. Maggie Shevlin turns in another wickedly droll performance as the wily servant Brighella. Jonathan Oliver's priest is gleefully hypocritical and Daniel Coonan makes a yapping pedigree chum of the dandy Lelio. Nick Barber's Florindo and Stephen Ley's Dr Balanzoni, convince as two more with an eye for the main chance.
Patricia Gannon and Drew Mulligan as the servants destined to marry are genuinely touching in their delight as they eye each other up.
But the stand out performance - or performances - comes from the mercurial Michael Matus in both title roles. Everyone onstage may mistake Tonino for Zanetto, but Matus brilliantly delineates the difference between the straightforward clod-hopping honesty of Zanetto and the incisive ruthlessness of Tonino. Matus makes both complex enough to prove that Goldoni's tale is far from straightforward in providing an obvious hero in either twin.
The way this company plays together makes me wish they could stay together for many more satisfying productions.
- Judi Herman