Casanova is a joint production by West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Lyric Hammersmith and Told by an Idiot, a company which specialises, we are told, in “mixing comedy and tragedy”. Not this time. The production is certainly comical, lyrical, poetic, not infrequently surrealistic, now and then dramatic, but never tragic.
Co-founder of Told by an Idiot, Hayley Carmichael, is on safer ground in comparing it to a fairytale. Carol Ann Duffy’s script, developed with company members, re-casts Casanova as a woman – and, inevitably, plays fast and loose with the facts of Casanova’s life, though such elements as his escape from prison in Venice, his touring throughout Europe and his meetings with celebrities and crowned heads are there.
I’m not sure how sharp a light Duffy casts on gender roles by Casanova’s sex change. Casanova as deserted mother is one obvious innovation and it is noticeable that the balance between trickster and tricked, between exploiter and victim, shifts a little and, tellingly, as the years advance, the female Casanova is mocked and scorned while her real life counterpart was still notching up conquests. But, in a fantasy world parallel to the 18th century, it’s the blurring of gender stereotypes (Mozart played by a woman, a fine young countess by a man) that matters most, together with the multi-lingual confusion of parts of the text.
Duffy and director Paul Hunter favour a narrative style that involves direct storytelling both by disembodied voice and on-stage characters, narration through mime and dance and comparatively little straight dialogue. At times the play advances by a series of witty sketches: a splendidly anachronistic look at the eating habits of Glasgow and Leeds or the knowing scenes where Voltaire steals all his best lines from Casanova or Mozart composes Don Giovanni at the prompting of our heroine. At other times the production builds its own expressionist logic.
Casanova is probably slighter than its creators hoped it would be, but it is clever, charming and played by a multi-tasking cast of six whose control of physical theatre is impeccable (choreographer Bernadette Iglich’s input obviously helps). Iain Johnstone’s music, whether pastiche, borrowed or original, matches mood perfectly, as do the hints of arena, bull ring and theatre in Naomi Wilkinson’s skeletal set. And there is the seventh cast member, the resourceful and resilient Hayley Carmichael, whose Casanova catches the character contrasts intoned by one of the narrators (“promiscuous…innocent” and so on) with the concealed art of a Giulietta Masina.