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A CurtainUp London London Review

In Dresden the servants thought that Casanova was totally boring and unattractive and not getting any younger either.— A servant
Hayley Carmichael as Casanova
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
Casanova as interpreted by Carol Ann Duffy and the theatre company Told By An Idiot was bound to be a lively interpretation of an old story. What was unexpected about this version, but not that unexpected when you remember Duffy's art is to reinvent masculine tales in a feminist way, is that Casanova is played by a woman. But that is not the whole story.

This is not a play about a woman exploiting men for their sexual favours because although Casanova wears a frock there is still some gender confusion as those around him/her refer to him/her as "he" and Casanova corrects them to "she". You need to take this tale with a large pinch of smelling salts as we follow Casanova on a serendipitous journey through the main cities of Europe.

The scene opens in Venice where Casanova escapes from prison. Her first conquest is a blushing monk (Johannes Flaschberger), who is seduced with unbridled lust and within a minute initiated into almost every position in a book of Tantric sexuality in a kind of fast forward porn movie. This is the start of the confusion as some of the positions Casanova adopts would normally be impractical for women achieving intercourse. So an escape on a gondola and off to Paris, the highlight of which is a carriage ride with Voltaire who steals all of Casanova's ideas and best quotes, as does Mozart later in Austria who takes Casanova's life story as the inspiration for Don Giovanni. In London Casanova falls in love and is fleeced by the young man and his unscrupulous father. The lively romp hits a problem in England where Casanova is delivered of a child who fortunately is adopted by the British Royal Family. An encounter in Pamplona made me wonder whether another Minotaur was going to spring forth but it's on to violin concerts in Prague and finally life as a Librarian in Dresden. Old age and poverty and ridicule await.

The production may puzzle with its gender switching but the scenes develop at a fast and furious pace with lots of silent film, car chase type music in between scenes to jolly it all along. The pursuing detective from Venice almost catches Casanova and necessitates hasty departures and unfinished affairs everywhere.

The costumes are impressionistic— underwear bodices and the saddle bag type construction which was worn under those huge wide skirts of the period. The set is a beautiful cast iron type frame to provide different playing levels and is endlessly adaptable. The cast are from different parts of Europe and each speaks some of the lines in their own language so that this production could be enjoyed for few words and understood through the action. The cast of course work very hard, changing roles and sex as and when needed to provide a full complement of characters.

Told By An Idiot stage it all very cleverly with physical, energetic performance. No one can forget Casanova's pregnancy where she is impregnated with a navy silk sheet in a bundle forming her "bump" for her waters to break and to give birth to a sweep of silk which is then bundled up into a small baby. These are images which linger as does the final picture of Casanova inside an oval rococo gilt frame.

Hayley Carmichael has a wistful quality as Casanova, she is above all enigmatic with her pale painted face and aquiline profile as lost as those she seduces. This is both the production's strength and its weakness. There is little to help understand the complexities of what motivated Casanova and I'm also confused as to how much of the story is based on Casanova's stories and diaries and how much is Ms Duffy. Of course as Casanova's original accounts themselves may be fiction, maybe how little we know of the truth is the message.

Written by Carole Ann Duffy and Told By An Idiot after the writings of Giacomo Casanova
Directed by Paul Hunter

With: Hayley Carmichael, Catherine Marmier, Carolina Valdes, Richard Clewes, Martin Hyder, Johannes Flaschberger, Tonin Zefi
Design: Naomi Wilkinson
Composer: Iain Johnstone
Choreographer: Bernadette Iglich
Lighting: Colin Grenfell
Sound: Andrew Meadows
A joint production from Told By An Idiot, Lyric Hammersmith and West Yorkshire Playhouse
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 050 0511
Booking to 24th November 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th November performance at the Lyric Hammersmith, King Street, London W6 (Tube: Hammersmith)

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©Copyright 2007, Elyse Sommer.
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