THEATRE / You had to be there, really: Susannah Centlivre revived and reviewed; Carlo Goldoni, a funny man seeking raves from the grave. Plus the London Fringe

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The Independent Culture
Some immigrants adapt happily to Britain, some don't. Chekhov and Ibsen could hardly fit more cosily into our theatres if they had been born in Chelmsford or Ipswich; Moliere is always good for a laugh and a full house; the old Greeks keep regiments of translators in gainful employment; and even the post-Unification tussles at the Berliner Ensemble seem unlikely to strip Brecht of his long-established right to be performed at least once a term by student drama companies. Yet there are still many first rank dramatists who have signally failed to win resident alien status here.

One of the most notable victims of our cultural border controls is Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793), a playwright who has been variously, if misleadingly, described as 'Italy's Shakespeare' and 'the Moliere of Venice', and who over the years has won the most fulsome tributes from such literary heavyweights as Voltaire, Lessing, Goethe and Lord Byron, who said that Goldoni's comedies 'are perhaps the best in Europe'.

Theatres thoughout the continent have backed these views, and Goldoni remains a staple of both professional and amateur productions in Italy, France and elsewhere. Indeed, to be scrupulously fair, even some British companies have championed the cause. The National Theatre chose to open its South Bank base with a production of Il Campiello in 1976, and has subsequently both staged its own version of the Country Mania trilogy (1986, in a translation by Mike Alfreds) and hosted a visiting Italian production of Le Baruffe Chiozotte, directed by Giorgio Strehler.

Despite such brave attempts, however, Goldoni's name still tends to draw blank or embarrassed looks from the average British theatregoer. Ah yes, Goldoni: let's see now, he wrote, um, The Master of Two Servants in that marvellous production by, um, and, didn't the RSC, yes, ur, at the Swan wasn't it. . . ? Quite. But the next few months may well put an end to all the umming and urring. The 200th anniversary of the playwright's death has so far sparked no fewer than five new productions in cities from Oxford to Edinburgh, which means that we will soon have less excuse than ever for our ignorance of Italy's most durable playwright.

Why, though, has Goldoni proved so hard to assimilate? Is it that his poetry (or, usually, his prose - Goldoni was not much given to versifying) gets lost in translation, like Racine's? Apparently not: at any rate, Robert David MacDonald, Co-Director of the Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow and the translator of 15 plays by Goldoni, believes the problem is less a matter of linguistic obstacles than of technical misconceptions:

'The thing about Goldoni is that he's the dramatist of the superficial - all his good qualities are on the surface, which is, of course, where they count, and it can all look frightfully thin on the page. There probably isn't a single funny line in all his 250-odd plays - the bones are deceptively bare. So the main difficulty you have in putting him on the stage is that you have to have a company which isn't trained to go snuffling around after Inner Truth, or trained in that rather fubsy Southern tradition of hunting around for the sub- text, but who can go for blank lines like 'Good morning' and really do something with them.

'What Goldoni does have is an absolute mastery of a very small range of dialogue, rather like Jane Austen, and, like all really admirable comic writers, a structure which is as solid as a rock - I may take certain liberties with his lines, say, by introducing Shakespearian tags, but I never have to change a thing structurally.'

There seems, in fact, to be general agreement that the main reason Goldoni has not worked well here in the past is because his modus operandi is somewhat baffling to our more realistic, psychology-heavy schools of theatre. This might appear odd, given that the reference books all say Goldoni's main contribution to Italian drama was precisely that he introduced greater realism, depth and nuance - in a word, psychology - to the stale vulgarities of Commedia dell'arte.

But, as Peter Jordan (who plays the title roles in the Oxford Stage Company's production of The Venetian Twins) puts it, 'From a distance of 200 years, you can see his roots in Commedia much more clearly than you can see his innovations. For example, even though Venetian Twins was the first play in which he insisted that the actors remove their traditional masks, it's still full of the stock characters - Arlecchino, Brighella, the Doctor and so on. And it's important to stress that element of artifice in the plays.'

Mark Brickman, who is directing The Venetian Twins, similarly suggests that 'the simplicity, the bravado that's needed can be quite elusive. It needs physical wit rather than linguistic or psychological wit. Above all it needs a company spirit, a zest, because just like Moliere and Shakespeare, Goldoni was writing for a small group of actors he knew intimately. The life of a Goldoni production is in the invention that you bring to what the business is on stage. In Commedia dell'arte there are these things called lazzis - a lazzi is a piece of business, so you have the lazzi of the patient being given an enema, or the lazzi of the man falling down the sewer. So part of the trick is to lace the production with series of lazzis which complement what's happening.'

Thus far, the Identikit of our suspect falls into fairly neat groups of antithetical qualities: brilliant structure, nondescript dialogue; glittering surfaces, negligible depths - a dramatist, that is, somewhat along the lines of a Wilde without the pyrotechics, a Congreve without the elegance, or, as Mark Brickman puts it with a nod to Goldoni's productivity, 'Ayckbourn on speed'.

The translator Ranjit Bolt, who has just completed a version of Mirandolina for the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh and is now at work on The Venetian Twins for the RSC, also stresses Goldoni's 'brilliant inventiveness' within strict limits. Yet he feels that it is not quite right simply to dismiss Goldoni's dialogue in terms of 'plainness' or 'flatness'. 'Even though Goldoni's language does not have the intellectual qualities we tend to expect of our classical comedies, it does have a beauty, a musicality which is usually lost in translation. In Venetian Twins, for example, there is some wonderful dialect which is very difficult to render in English because of the automatic class associations that regional accents have here.'

To be sure, there is no guarantee that five Goldoni productions, however inspired, can do much more than provide a swift taste of Venetian fare, and a nation which already owns The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night may conclude that it has no need to import any more plays about identical twins. But cultural insularity is often a form of wilful self-impoverishment, and though we no longer belong to the ERM, we should surely give at least some thought to the benefits of adopting the Goldoni standard.

OSC's 'Venetian Twins' is at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday, then tours to Winchester, Bury St Edmunds, Warwick University, Poole and Worthing until 3 April

'Mirandolina' will be at the Lyceum, Edinburgh, from 5-27 March; 'Friends and Lovers': Newcastle Playhouse from 4-13 May; The RSC's 'Venetian Twins' opens at the Swan on 4 June

(Photograph omitted)