For a good dose of Neapolitan charm and warmth, you have to head to the Almeida Theatre this spring to see this wonderfully produced revival. Easily the best play I’ve seen at the Almeida Theatre in recent memory, it invokes ever shifting responses to the characters on stage. Without wanting to give too much away, it’s about Filumena who wants to make her 27 year old relationship with wealthy Domenico respectable through marriage. In the opening scene, we discover she has tricked him into marrying her, which by itself is sheer comic genius, and this sets the sparks flying between both characters. During this explosive exchange of words and insults, she reveals that she has secretly borne three children in the time she’s known him. Domenico, however, finds a way to annul this marriage which leads her to drop the bombshell that one of her three children is his.
The sexual and gender politics are laid bare here as each party tries to outdo and outwit the other but the character development throughout the play helps us to sympathise with both Filumena and Domenico even if we aren’t too comfortable with their deceptiveness. Filumena’s childhood past sets the backdrop for 1940’s Naples where poverty and illiteracy meant that prostitution was the only survival option for women like her. Motherhood and the hardships associated with it for poor women are illustrated by both Filumena and her maid servant Rosalia. Both women have three children although the latter’s were born in wedlock. For women like Filumena, the easier thing would have been to abort her pregnancies but she didn’t because she wanted to give them their lives. She chooses to stay in an unfulfilled relationship with Domenico primarily to help her children. Rosalia’s husband dies while she is giving birth to triplets and she raises them in a basement room by selling knick-knacks. Both revelations are heartbreaking.
Marriage is another theme that gets the harsh reality treatment in this play. In Act 2, Domenico seeks lawyer Nocella’s advice to see if the marriage can be annulled and the interaction between both men and Filumena, while incredibly funny, points to the underlying fact that marriage is essentially a cold legal transaction, even in warm Catholic Naples. In the final Act, marriage features again and, while in contrast to what we saw in Act 1, it still raises doubts about the premise upon which the characters go into it. While Domenico resigns to the fact that at some stage, men like him will have to stop clinging to their youthful past, there is a niggling feeling that he gets swept into marriage at the end. The final Act may not have the raging sparks like the earlier Acts but it is cleverly constructed and presented in such a way that doesn’t pass any judgement on the characters.
The two lead roles are superbly executed by Samantha Spiro (Filumena) and Clive Wood (Domenico). The chemistry between them is compelling and, while they bring an abundance of comic flair into their roles, they also show the depth and the pain during the mellower moments on stage. There are strong contributions from the support cast too. Most notable among them is Sheila Reid’s Rosalie whose outwardly cheery disposition belies her own pain. And anyone who has ever had to deal with lawyers will find Edmund Wiseman’s portrayal of Nocella spot on. Robert Jones’ set design, not only invokes an Italian villa very well, but it adds vivacity to this play – something that you’ll remember long after leaving the theatre.
Until 12 May 2012.
Written by Eduardo De Filippo.
Adapted by Tanya Ronder.
Directed by Michael Attenborough.
Performance time is approximately 2 hours including an interval.