Cast pleads for its pound of tobacco

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The Independent Online
ROME - The Merchant of Venice has gone well at the municipal theatre in Treviso: the audience applauds and Alberto Lionello, the star, still dressed as Shylock, comes out in front of the curtain and holds up his hand for silence, writes Patricia Clough.

'I don't ask you for applause,' he declares in dramatic tones, 'but for cigarettes.'

There are 17 actors in the company and six technicians, he explains, all suffering badly from the strike of the state tobacco monopoly workers. 'We are performing in a different town each night. We do not have our friendly neighbourhood tobacconists who will put aside a packet or two for us and our reserves are finished.

'The actors and technicians are going round the bend. Everyone is tense. We have lapses of memory. Please help us.'

A basket is passed around and the audience, having recovered from the shock, gives what its smokers can bear to part with. And cigarettes being worth their weight in gold at present, the offering amounts to only about four packets.

Although the month-long strike has officially ended, only a thin trickle of cigarettes is finding its way out of the state warehouses and into the shops. More people are to be seen smoking now and it is indeed the friendly neighbourhood tobacconist who, as during the war, looks after his or her regular customers.

Or the smugglers, who are cleverly keeping the most popular brands in short supply in order to keep prices high. At present a carton of cigarettes in Naples, one of the centres of cigarette smuggling, costs around pounds 50. The smugglers are now taking orders for Christmas.