This new production of Saturday, Sunday, Monday puts a venerable war-horse through a striking new set of paces reflecting great credit on ensemble values across a talented cast.
It cannot be a coincidence that at the time this country entered the European Union in the 1970s the National Theatre and others produced a goodly number of European plays in translation, introducing to British audiences for the first time a range of playwrights well known in France, Germany and Italy, but hardly recognised here. De Filippo was one of these who benefited from the new coverage, with productions of Filumena and the play under discussion here, both enjoying successful outings. Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright and Frank Finlay starred in the latter, first on stage and then on the small screen. But Saturday, Sunday, Monday has not been performed for a while now, and it is a very suitable play for the Guildhall School to take on, not least because there are sixteen parts to share around, making it a large ensemble production.
With the orchestra pit covered and the stage area maximised at the Silk Street theatre, designer Dora Schweitzer has a huge space to play with, and fills it with a whole floor of a family apartment, a generously furnished living room on one side and a fully-functioning kitchen on the other, where the famous ragù is to be prepared. The set is dressed with a fastidious eye for period detail and the designer ensures that despite the interior walls there is no point from where the audience view is obscured. In a populous family drama the first requirement is a setting in which everyone feels comfortable and which is a fully credible, inhabited space – this design passes the test easily.
We see the play in the adaptation by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, which takes the action out of Naples and into Italian-American New York of the 1950s. The themes remain the same, though: inter-generational conflicts, a marriage gone stale through failures of communication, the unintentionally disruptive role of an outsider, and the consequences of leaving festering family disputes unresolved. The action is played out over a weekend, with the tensions rising on the Saturday evening as preparations begin for the big meal to follow on the next day, and the Monday reserved for the fall-out from the long sequence of rows and revelations that come to a head around the dinner table.
Director Joseph Blatchley paces things well over what is a long evening: he creates enough space in which the many characters can introduce themselves and establish key identities and relationships, while upping the speed and intensity and animation in the half hour before the interval. Crucially he also sustains the pace in the ‘Monday’ section so that it is not anti-climactic and tiresome. He has recruited from among the students a cast in which there are no obvious weak links and many fine individual performances.
This play stands or falls on its central relationship, and Elena Faverio and Wyatt Martin do not disappoint as Rosa and Peppino. Their disappointments and frustrations with each other and with the missed opportunities of their lives are well delineated here and they generate the fiery emotions needed for the set-piece moments as well the restraint needed for quieter episodes of despair. Only in evincing some of the frustrations of middle age do they – inevitably – seem less than fully convincing.
Around them form a circle of family members both comic and poignant, and sometimes both at the same time. Rosa’s father, Antonio, is played by Declan Baxter without obvious visible aging: the burden is on the skill of the actor to convey the regrets of age and quirky cantankerousness of the character. This is achieved with excellent comic timing and without caricature. The scenes in which he lovingly ruins the hats of all the gentlemen visitors are delightfully done. Equally fine are Peppino’s two sisters, Meme and Raffaela, played by Emma Canning and Lydia Fleming. The latter is an actress in the Neapolitan commedia dell’arte tradition, beloved of the author, and provides some charming interludes and reflections on the role acting plays in everyday life as much on stage. The former takes the traditional role of the daffy aunt over-protective of her daughter, but also offers many of the key speeches in favour of leading a life true to yourself but with compassion to others, views which approximate most closely to those of the writer, and his mentor Pirandello.
The three adult children and their spouses are all played with verve and excitable energy and degrees of petulance at the frustrations of family life that cramp their style. But more significant in the drama are two of the outsiders to the home. As the long-suffering maid, Virginia, Naomi Preston-Low, has a reactive, put-upon role to play, but it is absolutely crucial to the action, and she delivers it with careful finesse and pathos. Equally important is Uri Levy’s charming portrayal of Luigi, neighbour and friend, perhaps the only charismatic accountant in world literature. It is his debonair, flirtatious behaviour that sets the plot in motion and the action and intensity move up a gear or few, whenever he is present, to impressive effect.
This full-blooded and full-throttled production does justice to a play that rises beyond its fine-grained local specificity to evoke universal themes and values. Yes, there are moments of melodrama, but if they are played with panache and vigour, as they are here, then the production can transcend them leaving a residue of reflections on the impossibility and necessity of family ties, and how the flight of characters from reality into fantasy can only be sustained for so long. It is a reminder too of how much more fine twentieth-century European drama there is out there that we do not know nearly as well as we should in this country. Time for the National to revisit this territory with other plays by the same author!