Michael Attenborough's production of this play didn't work for me, and I'm trying to puzzle out why. There's a splendid central performance by Samantha Spiro as Filumena, the Neapolitan ex-prostitute who tricks her longtime protector, the rich businessman Domenico, into marriage by pretending to be at death's door. But for me, Eduardo de Filippo's classic was dead in the water long before the interval.
In his programme note, Attenborough writes about his research trip to Naples and the huge gap between rich and poor which still exists in the rubbish-strewn city of today. There's a lot that the Naples of 1946 and the Naples of 2012 have in common. Filumena's background and her determination to lift her three sons out of grinding poverty make up 'the off-stage world that is the genesis of what happens on-stage', he writes. For a Neapolitan post-war audience, the luxurious surroundings of Domenico's home where all three acts are set must have been a fairytale excursion out of their everyday world dominated by barefoot street children, poor housing, hunger and disease. There's a moment in Act One where a waiter from a nearby restaurant arrives with dinner -- a roast chicken under a giant silver dome, a bottle of excellent wine, some fine smoked cheese and a creamy cake for dessert.
For a theatre audience in Naples in 1946, wondering where the next bowl of pasta would come from, this would have been a 'Wow' moment when the imagination would have set the taste buds into overdrive, the stomachs rumbling and the mouths watering. But for the patrons of the Almeida theatre, Domenico's meal is pretty much what they eat on Upper Street every day of the week. The courtyard of Domenico's house, a sun-dappled ochre-washed square surrounded by colourful flowers and plants, looks exactly like the kind of Italian hotel where the posh Islingtonians who make up the Almeida audience go on holiday. In the theatre, the meaning of what is on stage changes completely depending on who makes up the audience. Attenborough has correctly understood that the play doesn't make sense without an understanding of the offstage world of deprivation which Filumena has escaped. She has stayed 27 years with the awful Domenico to create a new life not so much for herself as for her three sons, given up at birth, who have no knowledge of who she is. For a modern London audience, that social context can't be created with a programme note and some black and white photos of barefoot children; it has to be created on stage. Otherwise the play somes across as tame middle-class comedy.
Usually I applaud directors who try to stay faithful to the author and the text, particularly with foreign authors whose works aren't often performed. But I think Attenborough has missed a trick here by not going for a more ambitious reinterpretation -- the kind of reinvention which Stephen Daldry achieved 20 years ago in his legendary production for the National Theatre of Priestley's An Inspector Calls. This stayed faithful to the text but turned the play inside out with a set that boxed the family into a central space while creating from nothing the wider social context of the world outside. Filumena seems to me a play that is in its essence a long way from mid-20th century realism; it's more of a folk tale whose origins lie far away in the world of Boccaccio, Chaucer or Shakespeare. It's a powerful but implausible story about a rich man and a poor woman who has three sons who don't know who she is. It has all sorts of magical dimensions which this production, with realism at its core, fails to explore.
There are some other problems; Tanya Ronder's adaptation includes lots of contemporary slangy phrases which jar on the ear, such as 'Tell me about it!' and 'No worries'. Clive Wood is an excellent actor with many RSC seasons under his belt, but here he is badly miscast as Domenico. However hard he tries, he isn't plausible as a wealthy Neapolitan businessman. Like an English tourist in Naples, he never quite looks at home. The rest of the cast do their best, but their characters seem trapped in stereotype. The play itself has a soft centre and a happy ending which is like a sugar-topped Italian dessert. Like most folk tales, it's deeply conservative rather than realist. I wonder what a more Brechtian director less obsessed by realistic recreation of the Italian setting might have made of it.