Guest Blog: Writer Mike Akers On Adapting LA STRADA
La Strada is one of Federico Fellini's most memorable films. It won the inaugural Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and a host of other awards at prestigious festivals all over the world in the Fifties. The story of Gelsomina, a poverty-stricken young woman sold by her mother to Zampano, a brutish itinerant street performer, certainly struck a chord with audiences at the time, and the role of Gelsomina made an international star of Fellini's wife Giulietta Masina.
What is it about the film that gives it this enduring appeal, and would it be possible to translate its magic to the stage? That was the question producer Kenny Wax confronted us with when he broached the subject of creating a new theatrical version.
The idea first came to Kenny through his friendship with the late Lionel Bart. One of the great man's regrets had been the failure of his musical version of the story, which closed after a single performance on Broadway in 1969. After initially researching the possibility of reviving Bart's original script, the decision was made that it would be better to approach the project afresh.
Sally Cookson had already directed a number of successful touring shows for Kenny, including Jacqueline Wilson's Hetty Feather, in which Hetty runs away from her Victorian orphanage to join the circus. Gelsmomina and Zampano's journey along the road eventually leads them to join a travelling circus troupe, and the parallels between the two stories perhaps made Sally the natural choice to bring La Strada to the stage.
The creative team that had previously worked together on Treasure Island, Peter Pan and Jane Eyre was reassembled, and we began exploring the possibilities of this new project during a two-week R&D in Bristol about 18 months ago. This was our first attempt at adapting a film for the theatre and it immediately threw up a host of new problems.
With a novel like Jane Eyre, the challenge was to tell the story through action without losing the richness of Jane's internal life and the depth of characterisation that her inner monologue provided. With La Strada, the challenge was almost the polar opposite.
The camera observes the characters without comment or judgement. We get glimpses into their inner lives and motivations, but they are fleeting and often mysterious.
The story presented is open to interpretation. The viewer is offered a window into the lives of the characters, but it is left up to us to decide what we think of them and why it is important to hear their story. Fellini describes the best cinema as having the language of dreams: everything that you see on screen has meaning, but the meaning is not always literal or easily understandable. Recreating this dream on stage would not be an easy task.
The story at first appears to be a very simple one. The innocent Gelsomina is caught between the brutal Zampano and Il Matto, the Fool. The latter is a mercurial figure, charming, funny but with a devil-may-care attitude to life that sometimes borders on cruelty. We first see him walking on the high wire in a village square at the feast of Corpus Christi, wearing giant angel wings and eating spaghetti high above the rest of the townspeople.
On one level this story could be played out as a straightforward love triangle, but to do so we felt would not do justice to the richness of the film's narrative, much of which comes from the visual language and the use of symbolism. This was one of the things about the material that was immediately exciting and attractive to us, as it gives the story a depth and complexity far beyond its superficial simplicity.
The film's dialogue is sparse and functional. Its power is rooted in this incredible imagery: Zampano doing his act for a sparse and disinterested crowd in a dusty town square; Gelsomina waving goodbye to her mother from the back of Zampano's motorcycle truck; the huge statue of the crucified Christ being paraded through the town at the festival. The power of these images, and their sometimes mysterious significance to the meaning of the story, were really exciting to work with in the rehearsal room.
For us, theatre, like cinema, is a visual, sensory medium. Words are an important element in creating a rich theatrical experience, but they are only part of the mix. Music, movement, sound, set design, lighting and costume are equally important in telling the story. We have not attempted a naturalistic re-creation of what Fellini put on the screen. It was necessary to set ourselves free from the restrictions that this kind of realism would have entailed. Instead, we've tried to interpret the story in a way that is faithful to Fellini's wonderful film, but also sees it with completely fresh eyes.
The other instantly attractive quality of the film was the central characters. Gelsomina, as played by Giulietta Masina, has a wide-eyed innocence at the beginning and a natural affinity with her audience - a Chaplinesque quality that makes people immediately warm to her. She is treated with appalling cruelty in the film: beaten, belittled and abused by Zampano, who seems completely incapable of understanding the value of what he has until it is too late.
Zampano himself is something of an enigma. He hints at his past and the things that shaped him, but gives very little away. Ultimately, he is a survivor, driven to do whatever it takes to keep his head above water in a world of extreme poverty and violence.
Casting Audrey Brisson and Stu Goodwin to play the two leads immediately catapulted us into the world of the story, because of their instinctive ability to capture the characters seen in the film and synthesise them for the stage.
Bart Soroczynski, who plays Il Matto, was another vital part of the puzzle. Bart grew up in the circus in Canada and was riding a unicycle by the age of three! He brought the perfect combination of circus discipline combined with a tendency towards anarchy that really captures the energy of the character.
The other element crucial to bringing the world of the film to life is the rest of the acting company. Without their constant endeavour, open-mindedness and faith in the process, the task would have been an impossible one. They are vital in creating and sustaining the world that these three characters inhabit as they travel along the road.
When he was shooting the film Fellini suffered a breakdown, such was the intensity of the pressure. Our process was intense, but at least we didn't have to cope with a lead actor working on another project in the afternoons (Anthony Quinn was contracted to make another film at the same time, so managed to fit La Strada into his downtime) or producers constantly questioning the casting (when Giulietta Masina broke her ankle during the shoot, the producers thought this was a great opportunity to get rid of her!).
Despite all the problems he encountered Fellini managed to make a classic movie that has resonated with audience for over 60 years. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have the opportunity to spend time exploring his imaginative world.
Photo credit: Robert Day