As much a love letter to Commedia dell’Arte as an examination of its relevance in the 21st century, Chiara D’Anna’s Don’t You Dare! is a heartfelt romp through history using physical theatre. Created in 16th Italy, Commedia dell’Arte has appeared in various forms all over Europe. While actors centuries ago weren’t held in high regard by many institutions, in Italy, they earned the enmity of the clergy…
Creating her own characters based on the archetype masks used in Commedia dell’Arte, D’Anna brings to life this form of theatre in Italian and English, in the context they were originally performed. One of the main reasons why Commedia dell’Arte came under attack was that as well as satirising the powers-that-be – who feared their authority had been undermined – women ran and performed in the most prominent theatre companies. This was at a time before women were allowed to perform onstage in Britain and barred from most ‘male professions’. Inspired by this, D’Anna’s ‘actress’ character is based on Vittoria Piisimi – one of the greatest exponents of Commedia dell’Arte who was internationally renowned.
Of course that level of fame would put Piisimi on the radar of the clergy and the Inquisitor character D’Anna created was based on one documented figure who not only spoke out against the dangers of women, but also refused to spend time face-to-face with any woman. Dressed in black with a hood that obscures the face, D’Anna’s character spouts abusive rhetoric that incorporates elements of Donald Trump’s speeches. This reminded me of last year’s Pussy Riot show at the Saatchi Gallery, which held the likes of Putin and institutionalised misogyny to account.
Other archetypal characters that D’Anna updated included the ‘peasant soldier’ – who is at the mercy of all and sundry, but clueless as to what is going then – and ‘Gino’, based on the ‘entrepreneurs’ centuries ago who made a living peddling ‘holy relics’ and to the clergy, other ‘exotic goods’ for protection…
While performances in public spaces with masks might not be such a regular occurrence nowadays, the intrepid spirit of Commedia dell’Arte, with its ‘no-holds barred’ accountability of those in the public eye lives on in comedy and satire today. Don’t You Dare! reminds us that as long as there are institutions and public figures who infringe on the well-being and rights of others, there is always a need for the fearless of heart.
© Michael Davis 2018
Don’t You Dare! ran at the Cockpit Theatre on 15th and 17th November.