Christopher Hawes On … Contemporary Commedia dell’ArteDate: 26 August 2011
Christopher Hawes is artistic director of Slingshot Theatre, which aims to bring the techniques of Commedia dell'Arte to a contemporary audience. Their new production, The Zanniskinheads and the Quest for the Holy Balls, is running at the Underbelly until 28 August.
In July 2009 I spent four months working with one of world’s only remaining Commedia masters, Antonio Fava, at his International School which he has run successfully for the last 27 years.
Rediscovering European theatre’s foundational art form, the Commedia dell’Arte, was a revelation to say the least, and I found myself gripped by the power of the masks and their empowering of the actors. My return to the UK coincided with my establishing of Slingshot Theatre, a company set up to create exciting new theatre, with my sights firmly set on our debut show bringing Commedia to a contemporary audience.
Our artistic problem lied in relating something so cloaked in Renaissance culture to a modern audience, without disrespecting it or simply ignoring parts of it we didn’t know what to do with. The fixed points of Commedia had to remain present: masks, fixed types, improvisation, multi-lingualism, and Lazzi – comic actions not simply comic utterance. However Commedia’s dramaturgy is very dated, (marriage contracts etc.), the character’s names all carry detailed meaning in Italian, but not in English, and a small-scale production would not be able to accommodate the usual cast of 12-14 actors who give life to the full community of characters.
The answer lay in Antonio’s ‘Zanni-Skinhead’ mask. In Renaissance Commedia, Zanni was the foundational character, a poor, simple servant from the mountain regions, who sojourned to the city in search of work. His life is basic, led by two primary needs, food and sleep, and in summary: instant gratification. These marginalised bumpkins serve to survive, and serve badly because they are stupid. On a visit to the UK, a chance encounter with some aggressive skinheads inspired Antonio to utilise an artistic similarity between these two groups to propel Zanni 450 years into the future, rooting him in contemporary culture, dramaturgy and theatre. So fascinating was this Zanni-Skinhead character, we found the presence of any other character onstage unnecessary, which gave birth to the comic couple of ‘Peenut’ and ‘Ribbón’.
Through an international collaboration between Slingshot, ‘O Pernacchio (Switzerland) and Antonio’s ArscomicA (Italy) The Zanniskinheads and the Quest for the Holy Balls was born, directed by Antonio, and performed by myself and my Swiss colleague, the wonderfully talented Jean-Luc Grandin. It’s been exhilarating, risky and an incredible privilege to put together, but remarkably challenging and has been met with a violently varied response. We’ve had roaring laughter and mass walk-outs - it really is theatrical marmite, you either love it or you hate it and there’s not really an in between. However we don’t apologise for these matters of taste. We defend our culture and Commedia’s rich tradition, while serving a contemporary crowd and humbly aspiring to be better.
Many people ask me “who is the audience for this work?” and my answer is simply people who are young, in age or in heart. For the young don’t question or analyse the mask, they simply embrace it and enjoy it for all its worth, they accept the Zanni-Skinheads as they are, and rejoice in their idiocy, the idiocy of humanity.
- Christopher Hawes
The Zanniskinheads and the Quest for the Holy Balls tours the UK this autumn, with all details on www.slingshot-theatre.com.
Slingshot also bring educational Commedia workshops to schools & colleges all over the country, and currently have been working alongside the National Theatre, teaching workshops for their hit show One Man, Two Guvnors.
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