Friday 12 July 2019
THEATRE REVIEW: Once Upon A Time In Trieste - Hope Aria Academy, Manchester.
Stepping into the space that is Hope Aria House, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, was to see an elegant woman in a wealthy costume of the 1870s, puzzling over an intruder. He was a charismatic man with a beard in the generic rolled-up sleeves and flat cap of a lower-status worker. Why was he in her space?
This is a scenario that we have visited before via Strindberg, Cocteau and even James Cameron. But lingering in the world of Anna Girolami’s new play, delivered by Silver Pine Productions, pre-conceptions were soon removed. This was not a traditional historical drama. This was actually a subversive time-slip play with an edge of absurdism.
The characters Charlotte and “Pinko” soon established who they were to each other. Charlotte was in her throne room of her home of Miramare Castle in Trieste, Slovenia, in 1867; and she was a Belgian princess who’d recently been made Empress of Mexico. Pinko had escaped to the castle to hide in 1938, following an incident with a gun on a visit from Mussolini; Trieste has been part of Italy since the end of the First World War; and he was a Slovenian journalist protesting against the forced Fascist Italianisation of Trieste and its Slovenian population.
Neither character had any idea why they could see and interact with each other. At times Charlotte had to greet and deal with invisible visitors that Pinko couldn’t see, and they plainly couldn’t see or hear him either. The conceit extended to Charlotte showing Pinko an invisible telegram she’d just received. But the personal belongings of the two could be seen: Charlotte’s packed-up trunks, ready for her forthcoming trip to Brussels to reunite with her beloved husband; and the contents of Pinko’s pockets, which included playing cards, the gun, and cheese.
As the real historical personage Charlotte of Belgium, Sarah Gordon’s performance was detailed and assured, with the period movements of a nineteenth century aristocrat, and even a Penelope Keith-sounding laugh. She caught beautifully the sometimes petulant mouth or softly shining eyes of a woman who wasn’t particularly extraordinary herself, but placed by historical circumstance in extraordinary circumstances. She also had a delightful way of referring to Napoleon III as “the Little Pig” at regular intervals.
As the real historical personage Pavel “Pinko” Radic, Carl Bownas gave a sincere and rather moving performance of the frustrated intellectual trying to make a difference in a militaristic society. His character had heard of Charlotte of Belgium, and this gave him the opportunity to try to explain Charlotte’s future to her, which she actively resisted. But his main interest was his own society’s pain, and like the upperclasses everywhere, Charlotte wasn’t too interested in that.
With such a rich and intelligent script, it would have been good if there had been a little more rehearsal time to delve deeper into the actors’ performances, and factor in more the implications of the times they were living in into their characters’ psyches. And Charlotte’s dress bothered me during the entire show: in 1867 women were still in crinolines and side curls. The bustle dress, choker and upswept hair Charlotte had on came into fashion some years later.
But overall, I could see director Simon Corble writing notes in the back row, and during the curtain call he was radiant with pride. And rightly so.
Reviewer - Thalia Terpsichore
on - 10/7/19