November 03, 1990

Telling Tales


State Theatre Company Director, Simon Phillips talks to Murray Bramwell about progress on his newest project, an adaptation of Boccaccio’s Decameron opening in the Space next Saturday.

“If the Archbishop has departed have it given on my behalf to Cenni Bardella; let him send it to me at L’Aquila or Sulmona; otherwise, do send it to me yourself by one who you believe will deliver it to my hand; and do be most careful that messer Neri shall not get hold of it, for then never would I have it. I have delivered it to you because I trust you more than anyone else and I hold it most dear. Do be careful not to lend it to anyone because there are many who would be dishonest.”

Francesco Buondelmonti is writing to Giovanni Acciaiuoli in Florence in July 1360. The precious cargo that is to be delivered with such strict protocol is an early copy of the medieval best-seller, Boccaccio’s Decameron. Readers swooped on this rich, readable work as it began to circulate, particularly among the Florentine merchant society. Laboriously hand copied, it was a rare treasure enjoyed at this stage by a privileged few who not only relished it for its literary value but actually bartered the book as part of complex commodity trading as well.

Giovanni Boccaccio is thought to have written The Decameron between 1348 and 1351 while he witnessed the terrible outbreak of bubonic plague which, having nearly halved the population of Europe, snuffed the lives of three fifths of the people in Florence as well. Among them was Maria d’Aquino, the illegitimate daughter of King Robert the Wise, to whom Boccaccio dedicated all his early writing. He idealised her just as much as his friend, the poet Petrarch, had worshipped his beloved Laura, seeking to immortalise her as Fiammetta, one of the ten participants in The Decameron.

In his own time Boccaccio was admired more for his Latin works and other conventional writings than The Decameron. In its fresh use of Tuscan idiom and its vigorous contemporary detail, The Decameron marked a turning point, a shift in power and influence from the feudal agrarian society of the Middle Ages to the mercantile city states of the Renaissance. Small wonder the yuppies of Florence were quick to respond to Boccaccio’s innovation while more traditional pedants, including his friend Petrarch, disdained to read it.

Time has revealed The Decameron as a literary colossus shaping much of English literature for the next five hundred years. Interestingly, despite structural resemblances in The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer appears not to have known The Decameron specifically, but it has clearly exerted its influence on, among others, Shakespeare, Jonson, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Keats, Tennyson and George Eliot.

The sexual frankness of the stories in The Decameron has meant that it has long had a reputation as a coarse, even obscene work. A new adjective appeared -“boccaccesco” – meaning -“merry, joking, playing tricks, lewd.” Not true, say scholars and general readers alike, pointing to the complexity and depth of humanity in its hundred stories and regretting and decrying the puritanism of the modern reader.

For its last in-house production for the year the State Theatre Company with director, Simon Phillips, are bringing The Decameron to the Adelaide stage. I asked Phillips, at present rehearsing the show in Melbourne by day while many of his cast perform Capricornia by night, what attracted him to the project.

“Primarily I was interested in the notion of story-telling and the idea that any piece of theatre is in essence a sophisticated version of telling stories. While The Decameron is a literary work to be read, it is clearly, as a cluster of hundred stories told by ten people, a simple narrative, like the elder sitting around the campfire telling traditional tales or the grandmother sitting at the hearth telling children stories.”

“When I have adapted works for the stage before one of the challenges has been to get rid of the narrator because in theatrical terms, it is a relatively clumsy device. In terms of The Decameron, it is the very essence of the book that they each tell stories. Each story comes to life from a single line narrative and becomes a play.”

“As we worked out our stories and chose the ones we were going to do, we responded to the theme and tone of each and developed them individually. There are common rules in the interests of giving a cohesive show, nevertheless we use different sorts of devices and notions in different stories”.

“There are nine different narrators and as a unifying device we have the frame of the book itself – the situation of ten people who escape the plague and go into the hills of Florence to avoid the disease. That is an interesting element in the story. It is a celebration of life in the face of an enormously heightened awareness of death.”

“We wanted to choose stories which really represent the complete spirit of the book. It is a book renowned for its sensuality. An enormous number of the stories are about human relationships and more often, sexual relationships, but, in fact, the book provides you with an immensely rich vision of life at the time. We wanted stories which represented the extremes of the book in a number of different ways.”

“Although the book is based on a strictly patriarchal system it is supposedly written to entertain women. It focuses largely on women and the stories are addressed to `Dearest Ladies’. Even in the introduction, Boccaccio’s intention seems to be to write a book particularly for women -which is fascinating because they had such a terrible position in this society. They were chattels of the first order. We chose some stories which highlighted that idea and deliberately chose some stories showing women being able to be particularly resourceful given the position they were trapped in. We have slightly adapted a couple of the stories to strengthen the women’s role in them.”

“Our most extreme story, and perhaps the riskiest theatrically, is one where a man sees a vision of a woman being torn apart by dogs and slaughtered by a knight. It is one of the cruelest stories and it shows God, who is top of the pyramid in any patriarchal society, coming to the aid of a man who can’t get a woman to go to bed with him. It shows a hideous example of what the society thought should happen to girls who are mean to boys.”

In rehearsal Phillips is still experimenting with the order of the stories. “If you look at the way they are clustered in the book there is no great sense of dramatic order,” he observes, “I reckon Boccaccio was scratching around a bit by the time he got to number 97.”

“We are attempting to give the evening a satisfying shape. One element that interests me, which I felt had been abandoned by the book once the people have escaped to the hills, is to keep an abiding sense of the plague through the whole show- so, at the moment, the story I’ve chosen for the ending brings us back to the plague and the presence of death.”

Designer Shaun Gurton has been called upon to provide what in medieval times were called mementi mori, images intended to remind us all of the inevitability of death. “We wanted an emblematic design,” Simon Phillips explains, “which highlighted the idea of a community racked by death. So it is has a small storytelling area in the middle of a 14th century junkheap full of the detritus of a plague-ridden society.”

The production will be staged in the Space which Phillips is keen to exploit. “It seems a shame to go into a supposedly adaptable and intimate area and proceed to use it as if it were just a smaller proscenium arch theatre. Using the Space is a real release- you can experiment and get away with things a million times more easily than in a larger area.”

After four weeks in Adelaide, State will be taking The Decameron on the road to Port Pirie, Whyalla, Renmark and Mount Gambier. Shaun Gurton has spent time ensuring that the set will adapt to the variety of stages on tour and Phillips is confident that the players will be in good shape also.

The Decameron uses many of the actors who have comprised State’s ensemble this year as well as some familiar additions including Ghanaian born Dorinda Hafner and Marguerite Linguard. Despite the pressures of time bringing an adapted script to readiness in little more than a standard rehearsal time, Phillips is enthusiastic about the project.

“”The actors are all used to each other, the whole team from design, stage management, to lighting. Everyone is actually contributing and all the ideas are just flowing in to the production. I’m just grabbing the best of all of them and using them to pull things together. Often a good percentage of rehearsal time gets used up getting to know one another and learning to work together. They are not issues here so there really is time for experimentation and freedom of opinion.”

Once again, Musical Director, Ian McDonald is working closely with Phillips. “Music is simply one of the ways by which you can tell stories,” the director explains, “we have tried as a far as possible not to write more dialogue but to tell the stories by other means. Music is one such device, dance is another. Ian has grabbed every ancient instrument he can find and combined these with some fairly primitive elements. He’s also allowed himself to cheat occasionally by feeding those original sounds into his computer to create something which is a little more complex.”

Preparing the show under pressure away from the familiar environs of the company base in the Festival Centre has in no way diminished Simon Phillips’ prodigious good humour as he gathers some final thoughts on the production.

“This play might not be for everyone. As I said before -The Decameron is a book of extremes. But it will vastly disapppoint anyone who comes along in a plastic mac, that’s the first thing to be said. It’s not a salacious show and if you’ve got anything above an adolescent mind the sexuality is at best wonderfully good-hearted and always amusing. It is only ever hysterically erotic.”

“Telling Tales” The Advertiser, November 3, 1990, p.12.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment