December 01, 1990

Shaggy Stories


Tales from the Decameron
State Theatre Company
The Space, November, 1990.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

In their last home-grown project for the year Simon Phillips’ State Theatre Company has turned to Boccaccio’s Decameron. Written between 1348 and 1351 The Decameron perches on the cusp of the new mercantile age. Introducing a colloquial urbanity, it is fresh, erotic, often vulgar, and accessible- everything the upwardly mobile could want. It was keenly sought when it first appeared and copies were highly prized. In fact contemporary documents indicate clerics, merchants and the generally bejewelled were forever prising copies from one another. With a hit like this doing the rounds Gutenberg must have been quite sorry not to have been born yet.

Simon Phillips has adapted literary works before, having at different times staged Great Expectations and The Three Musketeers. Often the objective in the theatre is to erase the narrator but with The Decameron Phillips has retained the frame narrative and endeavoured to invest the Florence Ten with recognisable identities. Phillips has made some changes – instead of seven women and three men telling the stories he equitably has five of each. Much is made in Boccaccio’s prologue of the fact that it is work intended to amuse women which may be why so many were represented. It gives the State production a more contemporary political edge to have extra blokes narrating, among other things, tales of male cruelty and folly.

Having literally decimated the hundred stories Phillips has selected a wide variety nonetheless. Expectations of something saucy were not disappointed with the opening story of Masetto the gardener who, feigning dumbness, bears silent, and eventually exhausted, witness to the sexual enthusiasms of a convent of nuns. When he finally gasps that he’s had enough, his gift of speech is proclaimed a miracle. Other selections include the story of Tancredi who presents his daughter with a chalice containing her lover’s heart, contrasted by another story of Riccicardo Manardi, also caught in flagrante delicti by his girlfriend’s dad , but who, instead of being butchered, is prudently encouraged into bourgeois matrimony instead.

Others tales are more strange, such as the vengeful menace in the story of Nastagio degli Onesti who has a vision of his intended devoured by wolves, or the courtly tale of Federigo, a nobleman down to his last falcon, which he serves to his beloved when she calls at his table. In a twist that might be called Boccaccio Henry, the pity of the piece is that the lady had come round to ask if she may take the living falcon to her dying son.

While Simon Phillips has worked closely with designer Shaun Gurton and Musical Director Ian McDonald to integrate the ingredients of the production, it does not completely succeed. The Space is festooned with Medieval debris, cruciform grim reapers and other memento mori. There was after all a devastating plague ravaging Europe and it is the sense of hazardous mortality that gives Boccaccio’s text its complex vitality. The connection between the frame and stories is ultimately a tenuous one in Phillips’ production, a link more gestured at than realised.

These Tales make pleasurable theatre nonetheless. There is a freshness in the ensemble and, as with Quickies, the Space brings an amiable informality to the actors’ work. In their physical variety the ensemble, whether draped in Bronwyn Jones’s effectively low key Renaissance costume or revealed in their very human nakedness, give the work a likeable presence. Paul Blackwell is again notable not only in his splendid comic range but in more reflective even unlikeable roles. Others- including Syd Brisbane, Caroline Mignone, Bill McCluskey and Carmel McGlone also contribute generously.

Again this is a production enhanced by Ian McDonald’s music- whether it his opening plainsong, the settings for the group singing, the variety of krumhorns, whistles, tabors and whatever, or the inventive electronic soundscapes he concocts. He has made a major contribution not only to the success of this production but the entire season. With Tales From the Decameron, State has not set the Tiber on fire but has nevertheless momentarily broken the Anglo bias which plagues the Australian stage and created thrifty, vigorous theatre in the process.

“Shaggy Stories” The Adelaide Review, No.82, December, 1990, p.29.

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