The Servant of Two Masters is an exhilarating and enjoyable night of theatre in which Bell Shakespeare have updated and thoroughly australianised a farcical comedy by relatively unknown 18th century Italian writer Carlo Goldoni.
Adapted by leading Australian playwrights Nick Enright (who sadly died this year) and Ron Blair, the production under John Bell’s expert direction gallops at a frantic but thoroughly comprehensible pace. In addition to its classic origins the script bubbles over with complementary localisms, plus recognisable borrowings from as diverse a range as Star Wars, Frasier and Hamlet. Those fortunate enough to have seen “The Venetian Twins” in the ’80s will know what to expect: that too was a Goldoni play adapted by Enright and directed by Bell (with the added bonus of songs by Terence Clarke).
Remarkably effective in showing what can be done purely with a funny script and a talented group of actors, the production has no sets and makes very little use of the available Optus Theatre space: it all takes place at the front of the stage, in front of a gaudy backdrop. when not performing as their characters the actors take up positions at the edge of the stage armed with whistles, gongs and such-like to provide sound effects.
Opening night included some lost lines and missed juggles, with some actors unable to control their own amusement at the turmoil around them, but it mattered little in a context of improvisation and fun.
The star undoubtedly is Brisbane lad Darren Gilshenan as Truffaldino. A clown of remarkable versatility and talent, he evokes comparisons with celluloid buffoons Robin Williams and Jim Carrey (but without the help they get from film editors). Having seen quite a few fairly ordinary clowns in amateur and professional theatre, I was reminded what a serious business effective clowning is. Apart from the comic aptitude, it involves extraordinary discipline, training and hard work, all of which is evident in this young man’s performance.
While Gilshenan is the lynchpin, each of the cast of nine is excellent: Tony Taylor is effective as the seriously elderly and cunning Pantalone, father of the bride; Blazey Best is in turns sexy and manly as the cross-dressed Beatrice pursuing her lover; Matthew Moore, the parody of a matinee idol hero, acts the cavalier Florindo with appropriate style and bewilderment; Paula Arundell is archly cute and fetching as the maid who catches Truffaldino’s eye (and her interactions with the clown are great to watch); Arky Michael is suitably conspiratorial as the cook who knows the full story; David James is marvellously pompous and erudite as Dottore, the lawyer and father of the would-be groom (doubling hugely as a grotesque porter); Mark Priestley is the slick but craven ’50s rocker Silvio; and Emily Russell is the seemingly hapless but not so helpless bride Clarice.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around Truffaldino’s success in winning employment with two aristocrats, one a woman disguised as a man, and his increasingly desperate attempts to keep favour with and in particular to be paid and fed by both. It has not a moment of depth, character development or message: yet the contours of its pure farce so perfectly executed stay in the memory and earn repeated chuckles.
Underlying the action is the commedia dell’arte format, mercifully without the masks and overly-stereotyped characters. (Il servitore di due padroni was first performed in Venice in 1745, with Goldoni himself the first to break with tradition by presenting commedia minus the masks.)
The only pity is that its Brisbane stay is so brief but perhaps we should be grateful to have Bell Shakespeare here at all. Let’s hope they can be persuaded to bring their southern-touring Hamlet north of the Tweed some time soon.
After the Brisbane season ends on 7 June The Servant of Two Masters tours to Gladstone, Rockhampton and Townsville in Queensland and thence to 21 centres interstate (in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory).