THEATRE / Playing with money: Italy, the home of Pirandello and Dario Fo, is now producing more bad plays than ever before. Does anyone care? Della Couling reports

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The Independent Culture
When the television magnate Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party came to power in April, he promised a new start for the Italian nation. But one part of Italy's heritage has remained largely untouched: the theatre - umbilically connected to the state by a cord of patronage and subsidy that has produced libraries of new plays, but little of quality. For all the outside world knows or cares, Italian drama ended with De Filippo, Pirandello and Fo.

It's worth comparing Italy with Britain (another country where, to judge by the piles on literary managers' desks, half the population seems to be scribbling plays). The difference is that in Britain they put pen to paper with virtually no encouragement from government.

In Italy, by contrast, even the two major theatre magazines, Ridotto and Il Sipario, receive state subsidy, printing at least one play text per issue; and most of these plays, indeed most of those produced in Italian theatres over the last 20 years, would never stand up unaided.

The cleaning out of the republic's Augean stables has done little to alter this cosy situation, according to Mario Moretti, a tireless activist on behalf of Italian theatre. Moretti is the editor of Ridotto - and so can't be said to be completely immune from the factionalism of the Italian stage. But he's also a respected playwright of broad tastes - his subjects range from Giordano Bruno to Cagliostro to Scott Fitzgerald to John Belushi - and, most importantly, runs Rome's best fringe theatre, the Orologio.

In Italy, as Moretti explains, state funds pour into the theatre, be it children's theatre, experimental theatre, 'teatro di cultura' (the equivalent of the programmes run in the RSC and National Theatre) or commercial theatre. Rich or poor, full or empty, every theatre gets a fat subsidy.

Moretti believes this is one of the main reasons for Italy's 'cultural disaster': even the so-called free market is subsidised. What's more, all the big commercial theatre companies tour and soak up a second subsidy from the local government of each venue they visit.

'A further disaster,' Moretti explains, 'is that the state pays the subsidies up to two years in arrears, but once a subsidy is granted a theatre can go to the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro - the state bank - and get an advance. And, of course, the bank charges high interest, so all theatres have liabilities which leave them totally dependent on the state.'

Where the state ultimately controls the purse strings, it also controls artistic decisions. And so, until very recently, it has been the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Culture who have given prizes for theatre. 'They were administered by experts,' says Moretti, 'but these 'experts' were people who had their own theatres, and they advised the state to give prizes to their own outfits.'

Since the upheavals of the 'mani puliti' (clean hands) movement, with most people holding the reins now either purged or too scared to put a foot wrong, a lot of this has stopped. But what concerns Moretti is which way Berlusconi will jump. Will he continue to favour the big boys in the commercial theatre? Will he crack down on 'teatro di cultura'? Will the old-boy network continue? No one knows, and few, it seems, care.

None of this explains the lack of good new writing, however. The state insists that new writing should be encouraged, and bumps up the subsidies to any company staging new work. The result? Some 400 Italian companies commission new pieces, and stage them (mostly very briefly because the productions are so bad) just to get that bit more money.

Such blatant abuse, together with the factional infighting that bedevils all areas of Italian life, is exacerbated by an extremely fickle and largely apathetic theatre-going public. Not surprisingly, the result is a theatre which is manifestly self-indulgent and sloppy. Here the Italian critics play a starring role; the vast majority of them have shares in certain Italian theatres, and their reviews are tailored accordingly. Allegedly, several senior critics have accepted gifts in return for good notices. With some honourable exceptions, Italian actors, directors and producers behave like spoilt children, showing off, and turning a blind eye to the fact they are being manipulated to comply with the system.

It would be wrong to pretend that there is no good new writing coming out of Italy - even if the flood of new works, and the tendency of interest groups to plug them, irrespective of quality, means that what gets known outside Italy is often a matter of luck. It was quite by chance, for example, that I saw Operazione, a brilliant black comedy by the young Stefano Reali about the state of the Italian health service. Recognising its quality, I translated it, and sent it to four British theatres - two of whom accepted it. (Last September it was premiered in Alan Ayckbourn's Stephen Joseph Theatre as Physical Jerks.)

Reali is not alone. Other playwrights of merit include the likes of Manlio Santanelli, a Neapolitan, writing in an absurdist manner that also draws on De Filippo. His Regina Madre, a mother / son two-hander, has had great success in Germany (nine different productions at last count) and France.

Franco Brusati belongs to the cultured older generation and has a background in film. His La Fastidiosa (1963) has been revived with a star cast at Rome's Teatro Argentina this season. Dacia Maraini (born 1936), the long-time companion of Alberto Moravia, writes strikingly on feminist themes. Enzo Moscato (born 1948), whose tone is often bitter and sardonic, writes mainly in Neapolitan dialect, often in a highly poetic vein. While Ugo Chiti (born 1943) is another popular writer; his play La Provincia di Jimmy (1990) concerning the James Dean obsession has had well deserved success. But none of these is helped by a lack of disinterested promotion at home or abroad.

In Stefano Reali's play, when one of the characters navely expresses shock at hospital corruption, the cynical response is: 'But we are in Italy, aren't we?' The same could be said of the Italian theatre world. And until that mental frontier is well and truly breached, the outside world will continue to believe that post- war Italian theatre begins and ends with Dario Fo.

(Photograph omitted)