The Gold Rush (2006)
Our 2006 play again takes up Brecht’s idea of epic and we found that commedia dell’arte fits very nicely. It is another odyssey (therefore not a traditional commedia story structure), this time to find gold and with it happiness and personal meaning. Edmond Warner, a Daily Telegraph economics correspondent, described it as “a chilling reminder of the extraordinary lengths mankind will go to in the pursuit of wealth” (16/8/06), which, bearing in mind Brecht’s belief that epic should provoke thought in order to change society for the good, makes it seem Marxist and political, which troupes like the Gelosi or Confidenti would not have dreamed of being.
However, Antonio Fava says that the principle subject matter of the commedia dell’arte is ‘the seven deadly sins’ and what the troupes did do was mercilessly ridicule the manners and mores of the powerful and rich in the fashion of carnival (coming precariously close sometime to biting the hand that fed them and even being thrown out of Italy for a time and at other times denied actual speech) – and the carnivale is essentially Marxist in that it seeks to turn social order upside down if only for the day.
But what The Gold Rush (nor for that matter commedia dell’arte) is not is Forum theatre, didactic or consciously political (with no position implied about the latter). Above all it is a human story – a tragedia in commedia terms, walking the edge between comedy and tragedy – using a ‘family structure’, this time on the move, with archetypal characters all of whom are close relatives of Pantalone, il Capitano, Signora, Arlecchino, Colombina, etc, etc. While the traditional scenarios may seem banal and non-provocative they don’t have to be in their application.
“As a writer-director Pete Talbot has proved in touring a different show each summer to hay fields, village greens, gardens and cricket pitches across the southern counties, commedia doesn’t have to be obscure, or difficult, or set in 18thC Italy. The background to the current show is the Klondike gold rush of 1897 on the border of Alaska and Canada (the gold rush of the Chaplin film), and its eclectic dramatis personae include Irish and Italian immigrants, Native American prospectors, a sleaze-ridden mayor and his gun-crazed henchman, a lascivious hellfire preacher and a simpleton….. The company wears its historical credentials lightly. Unless primed, you might only dimly register commedia’s distinctive physical disciplines at work, or the characters’ correspondence to the archetypes of Pierrot, Harlequin and co.
But it’s depth of study that gives this piece flavour and coherence, and makes it consistently captivating even when we spectators’ backsides have grown numb from sitting on grass….Given a set that’s no more than a painted booth, the players must draw a gaze using only their bodies. Often this involves movements to suggest phenomena such as howling wind, a log fire or the terrors of the so-called Golden Staircase – the mountain pass that claimed the lives of 70,000 poor and desperate hopefuls. Yet the profound anti-naturalism in the show is never arch. Every cast member, as well as taking several parts, generates sound effects and incidental music, and it soon seems perfectly natural to see characters take up accordion or violin….
Modern comedies are routinely described as dark. The Gold Rush shows that today’s taste for laughter tempered by grim reality has its roots in commedia, or, strictly speaking, tragedia, its parallel form. Fosca (Death) is the sole stock character who appears here undisguised, lurking halfway up the Golden Staircase to claim his victims. There is no happy ending, yet the triumph of this vibrant production is the lingering conviction that love, friendship, the stream of life and the human spirit all give Fosca a run for his money.”
Jenny Gilbert, Independent on Sunday (July 2006)