Woman: An Old Story

“I observed a great multitude of country clownes that came the Sunday morning to Mantua that I was there, with strawen hats and feathers in them, and every one had his sithe and hooke in his hand; belikie they came to put themselves out to hire for harvest worke.

The first Mountebanke that ever I saw, was at Mantua the eighteenth day of June, being Saturday, where he played his part upon a scaffold. Of these Mountebankes I will write more at large in my observations of Venice.”


Mantua has the goodies, the cathedral, Christ’s blood (handy for the conspiracy tourist, and right next door to Emporio Armani), and bountiful festivals. It doesn’t have the gravitation grace of Cremona though. (That long piece is taking time).

I confess I’ve been hankering for a Michelangelo Antonioni moment and twice it comes: walking into town I see the most photogenic police interrogation since “Basic Instinct”:

“Trammell, Katherine Trammell, officer…”

and in the Piazza Delle Erbe it arrives in Panavision.

Flecked around the largely empty square are people sitting or standing on their own, one reads sitting in an alley between two courtyards: pale, not Italian; not a tourist. Shirtless men look up to the sky. Women in white bikini tops and thin skirts climb a gantry. The backdrop is huge courtyards and squares, their finer details eviscerated by the white light of the sun. And close, on the only other table at the Pizzeria Delle Erbe with people, one of those “The Passenger”, “Zabriske Point” conversations: in English, but neither party, brooding “director” and red-lipsticked “actor”, are native speakers.

Woman: “The script, I could work with you on the script.”
– one of those lost Antonioni silences.
Woman, looking up: “Of fuck, it’s shit on me.” Above a swift or a swallow looks on, then flies away. Woman calls the waiter over: I’d like to explain this is good luck in Hungary, but the dynamic is a little intense.
Man: mumbled something.
Woman: “Then I am sorry. Sorry I drank the apple juice. What the fuck? Why shouldn’t I drink the apple juice?”
Man: shrugs.
Woman: So the film is financed? Is ready: then I can work with it?”
Man: shrugs. Sends his salad back, something is wrong.
Woman: “You have to understand this writer, he will not just say:’yes, yes’ because it is you.”
Man: “Let’s try and make this a happy day, all day.” Laughs, “But when I….”
Woman: “When you’re happy, you’re sad?”
A key grip or something like that: less good looking, clutching something important hovers over the table then moves away.
The couple get up, leaving their salads.
Woman: “So you are saying…” The three disappear past the Baptistry.

Jacob and Kate are two Polish actors, they’re in Mantua for a few days with their troupe, “Theatre a Apart”, which is performing two street pieces: last night they were in “El Nino”; today they are resting whilst others perform “Femina v.2”.

“In Poland I don’t have a permanent theatre job, so I travel with this, it’s good experience. Before Italy we were in Germany. The thing about touring is that it’s a two day drive through Austria and the Czech Republic from our home, Tychy, near Katowice: you probably know it from the beer. It is a big beer town. And then it is construction of the set, perform: you don’t get much time to see a place, or to meet any of the other performers who are around.”

Street theatre has its own season: when it’s warm, naturally. Finding an entire festival in Mantua feels very like a link back past Tom to Middle Age Passion Plays, and market pageants. But I also think of some of comments from Lodi, how festivals are “boring”, are for the old, for tourists, not really connected to the “style” of the town.

Jacob and Kate have worked in several touring companies. “Theatre is developing in Poland, it is establishing again,” Jacob says, “but Poland is a mess. We spent three years touring in Dubai and Quatar with an Italian based group, but it had people from all over the world. Africa, Asia – even English people. It wasn’t art. There isn’t a market in these countries, and the Emirates, for ‘theatre’ it was more like children’s theatre, magic, the things you might see at a circus. Juggling.”

So you like to get away from Poland. “No, we love Poland,” says Kate. “But it is in a bad way. The politics. The people leaving.”

“But theatre is developing, moving in a good direction. But very slowly. You know the EU has helped, there is more funds for the regions, not just big money in the capital, and groups have got much closer to local government, sponsorships. I think that’s good.”

We think of Polish cinema, the cinema of Zanussi, Wadja, Kieslowski. “Well cinema is stagnant,” Jacob says. “There are a few films about our situation but they’re not mainstream, they’re “D” stream. You can’t see them in the cinemas. In fact we don’t see them, we read about them. You have to go to festivals, or international events to catch them.”

“The pleasure is seeing how different audiences react to your piece, it really is different everywhere. It is a reciprocal thing: you give, and they give. I really like this element to street theatre, it is so close, you can watch the faces.”

“Of the people we knew at high school we are the only ones still left in Poland. Most are in London or Dublin, somewhere. It’s much easier to be outside where the living is better. Clean dishes and you earn as much as a Polish teacher. And you don’t have to worry, you’re away from your responsibilities. You don’t have many needs. It’s not that is was better before [with communism] it’s just that what we have right now isn’t democracy, it is politics as business. I was saying I like the reciprocal nature of theatre, well right now in Poland everything is about “The Shield” [the new American missile defence system against “terror” in the middle-east, or maybe Russia] and we ask, ok, what do we get back in return for housing these missiles? “

“One of Poland’s greatest ‘things’ is its history, it’s a really interesting history. And one of the facts is 500 years of bad governments. You know we are taught that we – we and the other allies – won the Second World War. But we are the victims of that war, the biggest victim I think if you look at the rest of Europe now.”

Kate says: “The politicians don’t care about our opinions.” Jacob laughs: “I can accept corruption, corrupt government, but it has to do some good. I don’t see that. There’s a new education minister, he is the leader of a party that’s part of the coalition in power. He has a mandate from 3 per cent of the electorate, and yet he is pushing through these crazy new ideas. Anything that is controversial about Polish history, about Poland, cannot be taught.”

Like Norman Davies? “No, he is taught, it’s a honour we think that others should write about Poland,” Kate says.

You won’t leave, like all your friends? “This is a catholic country, remember,” Kate says. “No, we love it, Poland.”

“Only for economic reasons, if it gets too bad.”

Above and around the offices of the Festival the rest of Theatre a Part are preparing. In the square they are building two gantries for lighting and performing; upstairs a woman is ironing the costumes. All of the troupe have the vaguely Antonioni feel; or perhaps it is Fellini. The women still sit around in bikini tops and shorts, the men smoke quietly. All are wiry, strong you sense.

“We have been performing these pieces for ten years now,” says the Director and Auteur, Marcin Herich. “We’ve been all over the world, many times. Brasil three times. Croatia, Holland, Sweden. England too – to Stockton, Stockton-on-Tees, it’s the biggest street festival in England. Location is vital for our work, we began twenty years ago indoors in factories and small theatres, played in an industrial aesthetic. But soon we realized the shows needed to be outside. Not in an open space, the best space is a courtyard, tonight is a little too big. We love to be in different places, the whole process is a journey, from starting out in the cars and vans to seeing the reaction. These are adventures, using an international language – the visual. I like to hear about the different ways of thinking in these countries.

Kasia is an actor and assistant to Marcin. “Countries never have the same emotions. We are especially well received in ‘southern’ places, like Brasil. They are every emotional there and in Sweden…it’s different. We’ve been to Brasil three times and Sweden once, and it is much easier to get to Sweden.”

Tonight there is a problem: “Femina v.2” is the story of “woman”. “An international story, women can recognise these things anywhere, they have something in common.” Kasia says. The local authorities (and here it is perhaps worth remembering that “Femina v.2” is Marcin’s baby, written and directed and choreographed out of his “emotions and experiences”) have decided that the performance must be put back an hour, and lingerie purchased. There is to be no nudity in Mantua. “It is strange,” Kasia says. “There is a scene of birth, how are you supposed to be born wearing La Perla?”

Work proceeds through the afternoon, most of the group climbing the scaffolding to ensure the wiring works, the music, the “effects”. By nine they are having a final cigarette hunched by one the White Vans that has brought them here. At dinner in the Pizzeria Delle Erbe, a restaurant with an American Jazz theme, unexplained and seemingly unexplainable, other than Mantua has many big concerts – Lou Reed, George Benson, Al Jarreau, Joe Cocker, the Gotan Project – perhaps a few years back the jazz greats all came. This year it is Michael Bublé.

There is an air of utter disregard for the performance to come; perhaps this is part of the down-side of festivals. After a fortnight of all this, why not stick to the pasta and keep talking until the time? Around ten the artists vanish to their changing room and music, the soundtrack it transpires, begins to play across the square. Synthesised film soundtrack style, Duane Eddy guitar, Rick Wakeman keyboards, a little light David Holmes percussion; a classical track – is it Debussy? – that gets broken up by wails of feedback.

The local censorship seems a little harsh: Italian television is a late night fiesta of disrobed women of “all” ages explaining their own love of this and that, mostly that. Or other women. Anyway, this is art. Let’s see.

“Femina v.2” begins with three men and a woman throwing buckets of water over themselves. Then they take their shirts off. High on a gantry behind a plastic sheet a woman in white La Perla briefs (only: compromise, I guess) is wrapped in clingfilm and bathed in a red light. Eventually she bursts out of the clingfilm and water soaks her as she writhes into birth.

Opening shot for a Brian De Palma film?

Slipping on a little black dress she learns to walk (in high heeled black boots) through the other performers placing buckets on the ground that she traverses, when she has stepped off a bucket it is picked up and thrown over her head where another performer catches it and sets it down. Eventually walking is learnt.

A man turns up, Woman falls over a lot. Two new actors appear on either side of the gantry having a fully clothed shower. Then they undress. I’m not sure what the thigh high stockings were all about, but the new actors certainly got clean in their tiny briefs. “Woman” learns to dance, but the dancing is discordant, she keeps falling down. Some “Grand Inquisitors” on stilts rush around and scare us with flaming torches, then they light a fire and the two actors who were nicely clean are strung up in their La Perla and Calvin Kleins for a good roasting.

The audience is quite quiet. Not very emotional at all. Indoors this would be $85 a ticket and Hedge Fund managers would be calling for Krystal.

When the roasting is done and the briefs gently singed, “Woman” changes on stage into a wedding dress. There is much thinking. Then the stage is set on fire and we all get a little roasted. Finally a stilted man in white leads “Woman” away. There are four curtain calls.

Soon afterwards the gantries are being taken down whilst Mantua’s boho crowd retires to the next square to check their cameras and see if they can sell anything to “Playboy”. Theatre a Part’s next show is called “Tsunami”. Very wet Tsunamis.

Despite the rather silly soft-core nature of the show, there is nevertheless a link back to medieval communal theatre, I think. The themes of men and women, the “state” and “burning forever in hell” are commonplace enough – particularly in a Catholic country, of course. Tom would have gone for Theatre a Part. Probably written at length about its shocking nature, but like the family audience tonight, he wouldn’t have left.

“Did you like it?” Jacob asks. Before I can answer, he says: “It was better than last night. This piece has a better structure, a better rhythm.” I nod: Jacob has shaved his head since I last saw him.

After a little sitting on the balcony looking cool, Marcin is having a cigarette by the gantries. Was he pleased? “The acting yes. The location, no. It is too light, some of the shops were still open. This piece needs to explode in contrast, to burst out of the night.” But it was ok? “Oh yes, the actors did very well. One thing though: usually they are naked. It would have been nice if they were naked.”

About robhunt510

Writer, artist
This entry was posted in Mantua. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Woman: An Old Story

  1. That’s great. Wish I’d been there to see it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Glad to see that Polish street theatre is still alive and kicking. And, er, still naked. Got to say, it took me back several decades…

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