Fellini’s La Strada (The Road) transformed the landscape of Italian cinema following its release in 1954.The original neo-realist film delved deep into the human condition and this year is being re-released in selected cinemas.[1] Originally starring Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina as the simple-minded Gelsomina the film was released against the backdrop of post-war austerity, mass migration in search of the means to make a living. Now taking to the stage at The Other Place[2] in a very different era of austerity and conflict is an equally significant imagining of La Strada: a daring and dynamic retelling of the classic story that sees Sally Cookson, associate artist of the Bristol Old Vic, direct a phenomenal cast that brings to life this poignant classic.

Gelsomina (Audrey Brisson) is sold by her penniless mother to the circus strongman Zampanò (Stuart Goodwin) to replace her sister Rosa, as his assistant. The tale, as told on both stage and screen, follows their journey on the road performing to crowds country-wide with little to no success. The tyrant of Zampanò keeps a strange hold over Gelsomina in a complex and enthralling relationship that develops over the two acts. In the beginning he attempted to train her via repeated beatings and at many points he uses his strength to intimidate her. Gelsomina is simple-minded and her difficulties in understanding the situations are performed sensitively as she grows in confidence. Zampanò exploits her oddities as he forces her to perform her “rain dance” and the pair eventually find themselves working at the friendly circus. At the circus however is Il Matto (Bart Sorocznski), Zampanò’s greatest enemy, and the brief spell of stability begins to crumble as the two are unable to coexist within the confines of the circus. Outside of these three central characters is a gifted ensemble of both actors and musicians whose craftsmanship and diverse skill set make up the rest of the characters.

The pacing of the production is flawless, the time flies by for the audience. The scene changes draw greatly from physical theatre using music and acoustic singing, with the ensemble moving fluidly around any set pieces often mimicking waves or weather changes. What director Sally Cookson has managed to achieve is to create an entire world in the audiences’ imagination using minimalist set design. Two power masts either side of the stage frame the empty wooden floorboards with ominous chains draping on the back of the stage. But despite this desolate backdrop the magical musical storytelling draws viewers in to a perfected visual spectacle as many cast members frequently climb up giving multiple heights to the production and this is frequently utilised in fight scenes. One standout moment is the use of clicking by the ensemble to provide the sound effects for the rain a means of drawing a scene to a close, both extremely effective and almost haunting in its sound and the settings are frequently created through musicscapes.

La Strada begins and ends by the sea. The waves act as a metaphor for a home that deserted Gelsomina throughout the play, “I like it here by the sea” she proclaims as her mother prepares to send her away and at the very end the ensemble even speak the words, “it ends at the sea”. The physical nature of the waves is also played upon as the ensemble often mimic its movements during scene changes (a technique interestingly also currently being utilised in Emma Rice’s Twelfth Night at the Globe). The varying turbulence and calm works wonderfully as a means of storytelling and allows the narrative to end with a feeling of closure.

Without dampening the ending this production diverts away from the original plot providing Gelsomina with the agency to make her own decisions and assume control over her fate: in this stage adaptation she leaves Zampanò, whereas in the film she is abandoned by him. This delicate and empowering portrayal of the female lead is executed brilliantly by Audrey Brisson. Her relationship with Zampanò transforms as she begins to assess her own worth demanding her share of profits. There is a strange love-hate aspect to this relationship, as if Gelsomina acknowledges her reliance on Zampanò and in return offers an almost canine obedience and loyalty (in the beginning at least). Zampanò at times shows tenderness to his apprentice such as covering her sleeping form with a blanket, but moments later will cut her down and cast her aside in favour of the woman who will grant him her attentions.

Haunting the proceedings is the fate of her older sister Rosa who went with Zampanò and “didn’t survive the winter”, and it feels almost as if Gelsomina’s narrative has been predestined to follow that of her sister. Frequently Gelsomina is shot down in her questioning over what happened to her sister, and while at the beginning she passively accepts this, it later fuels her anger and desire for change. A particular musical refrain is hummed by Gelsomina and this two gradually gets louder and more confident in the end becoming the core of her legacy and how she is remembered. This is a story of a young woman who gets bolder and bolder, although things don’t quite turn out well for our sorry heroine. La Strada does not offer a tale of hope but rather a tale of humanity and its dynamic showmanship shows both the vitality of life, and its cruelty.

La Strada continues at The Other Place Theatre until 8 July. Tickets can be found here.

[1] Peter Bradshaw, “La Strada review – Fellini masterpiece hits the road again” https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/may/17/la-strada-review-fellini-masterpiece-hits-the-road-again

[2] https://www.theotherpalace.co.uk/