Culture Critic Grace Baxendine reviews an evening of performance by Italian actors of Commedia dell’Arte in Padova, Italy, reviving the Renaissance form

Culture Editor and final year French and Italian student
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Images by Grace Baxendine

The Loggia e Odeo Cornaro, famous for its contribution to the revival of theatre during the Renaissance period, is no longer used as the theatrical hive it once was. In fact, now it is more of a museum, and is carefully preserved, as the historical treasure it is. And so, I jumped at this rare chance to see two Italian legends of the Commedia dell’Arte perform for a one-off evening in the Loggia, in dedication to perhaps the most famous and beloved character of the Renaissance, Harlequin.

Performed by world famous Italian actor, Ferruccio Soleri, now 90 years old and equally famous Renaissance theatre actor, Carlo Boso,

This production was a fabulous homage to the theatrical phenomenon, Harlequin, and this characters’ roots within the Italian Commedia dell’Arte

The Loggia was a revolutionary structural statement, imagined and designed by Alvise Cornaro in the first half of the sixteenth century to follow in the footsteps of classical Greek theatre, which had been forgotten for centuries in Italy and most of Europe. This structure housed the budding art of Commedia dell’Arte in Italy, characterised by masks and improvisation. To have actors on stage in this theatrical marvel, which holds so much significance to the history of theatre, was truly remarkable and incredibly poignant regarding the living memory of the art. As actor Soleri said at the start of the performance: ‘Viva Arlecchino, Viva la Commedia dell’Arte!’ (Long live Harlequin long live the Commedia dell’Arte).

The night began in warm dusk and ended with a perfectly lit stage shadowed by the imposing Loggia building behind; the audience falling into darkness in this open-air theatre. The night was interestingly not just a play, in fact, it consisted of much introduction and explanatory interludes between sketches and took the audience on a journey, not just of Harlequin’s origins, but that of much of the Commedia dell’Arte. Two other younger actresses helped to demonstrate the improvisation of one of the first actresses of the Commedia dell’Arte, Isabella Andreini. Soleri and Boso led the audience through the various ways in which improvisation would occur on stage during the Renaissance and in particular, Harlequin’s characteristics.

Harlequin, as a character, is conventionally comedic and mischievous, often dressed in multi-coloured, chequered dress. Masks were an important part of the Commedia dell’Arte and this longstanding tradition was upheld as both Boso and Soleri performed together with masks and comedic, almost pantomime-like sketches with the audience in constant laughter.

Ferrucchio Soleri, quite emotionally, said at the end of his final applause, that this would most likely be the final applause on stage he would ever receive

It was a touching speech and realisation that a lot of the audience had not anticipated. His farewell to the stage seemed understanding, as it was apparent by the end of his performance that he was tired and struggling to keep up the energy he so perfectly puts into his Harlequin and has done more than five thousand times in his career. His acting style is incredibly dependant on high energy and his portrayal of Harlequin really shows this. Soleri has dedicated his whole life to the art of theatre and Harlequin, it is something rare to find in a person; he possessed so much passion for his craft.

The evening was the perfect end to Soleri’s career and the perfect way to pay homage to the character of Harlequin and the Commedia dell’Arte, which is so important to the world of theatre, and indeed, the cultural identity of Italy itself.