Don't You Dare!
Panta Rei Theatre
Tristan Bates Theatre
There is a commedia dell’arte figure in an Arlecchino mask, a white shirt and a big ruff rushing around the Actor’s Centre bar and front of house rounding up the audience for Don’t You Dare!. It is British-based Italian writer / director / performer Chiara D’Anna exhibiting an energy and direct contact with her audience that is maintained right through her performance.
On the one hand, Don’t You Dare! is an exploration of commedia characters given a modern twist; on the other, a scream at past and still surviving treatment of women—its satire sharp and very funny.
It is 1601 and she’s an actress in London, surprised to discover that men and boys play the females at the Globe playhouse and berating Will Shakespeare for it being so. But it is not only in England that there is opposition to actresses. Theatre has often been suspect.
Back in Italy, actresses’ power to captivate their audience has been thought to have links with the Devil. Inquisitor Cardinal Carlo Borromeo is after them with accusations of witchcraft. Meet commedia star Vittoria Piisimi of the Gelosi troupe, so famous that Henry III of France requested a special performance from her.
But before D’Anna gets into that story, we get a brief glimpse of a classic doddery Pantelone and are introduced to some other commedia figures: the soldier, the rich man. She brings them forward from the cusp of the seventeenth century to modern times. Germino is the soldier who’s seen every war since, right up to the Syrian conflict, and has returned with PTSD. Gino is the tycoon turned politician who could be Trump or Berlusconi. Then, after the Inquisitor cardinal has mounted his pulpit to rave against theatre’s witches, we meet a religion-obsessed grandma.
The acting is flamboyant, characterisations broad ones: it is a kind of theatrical shorthand, but played with a passion that connects. A new character gets a new costume, the transformation taking place just out of sight, usually with D’Anna continuing talking with no break in the flow or covered by a music cue. The text is mainly in English with a few passages in Italian and some that are total gibberish, but there is never any doubt about meaning.
D’Anna performs with irresistible energy, carrying the audience with her. Her satire, which isn’t just aimed at presidents and prelates, may keep us laughing until what seems the end—but wait: there is a more painful coda that returns to the underlying theme of the treatment of women.
Don’t You Dare! forms part of the A Piece of the Continent festival presented by The Actors Centre and Voila! Europe that responds to Brexit by celebrating European theatre-makers in the UK and runs 8–27 April.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton