A masterpiece of world cinema, Federico Fellini’s 1957 Oscar-winning La Strada, has been given new life with a vibrant stage adaptation coming to the Lyceum Theatre next week.
La Strada which translates as The Road takes a young girl Gelsomina on a journey from her Italian rural home to the bright lights of the circus after she is sold by her mother to brutish strong man Zampano.
As the wide-eyed waif-like Gelsomina discovers the harshness of the wider world she meets up with mischievous tight-rope walker and clown Il Matto and finds herself caught between two roads, not knowing which way to turn.
The theatrical experience of this metaphorical, poetic and ultimately heartbreaking tale comes courtesy of Sally Cookson, whose productions of Jane Eyre and Hetty Feather have been enjoyed in recent times by Sheffield Theatres’ audiences.
“I had never thought of turning a film into a piece of theatre but when producer Kenny Wax asked me I couldn’t resist the challenge,” she says. “One reason was my father was obsessed with the Fellini film and so I had seen it as a small girl. He was infatuated with the central character and I had worked with Audrey Brisson and I thought she had all the qualities to play Gelsomina and I was very interested in working with her again.”
The French-Canadian performer felt the same. “I had just finished Romeo and Juliet with Sally and I love the way she works and knew that I wanted to work with her again and again. I trust her completely as a director so without knowing what the story was I said if you are doing it I am in because she is just so amazing.”
Without knowing the story I said to Sally if you’re doing it I’m in
And an insight into that way of working comes from Stuart Goodwin who plays Zampano. “There was no page, there was no script. There was the film and then there was the idea. It was completely devised. Sally looks for skill sets whether musical or physical, circus, strong acting, and puts us in situations and tries to pull out the best. From that we try to formulate a rough script but it really was rough.”
You might imagine the circus skills come from Brisson who has years with Cirque du Soleil on her CV, but not so. “I was a singer and character in that, I wasn’t an acrobat, but when you are in a show for five years you pick up tricks,” she says.
She was only four when she made her Cirque debut. “My father was a musician and I was with him on tour and they just added me to the show,” she explains. “From age 11 to 15, that was the big tour that I did, three years in America and three years in Europe.”
The main circus input in La Strada – clowning, unicycling and a bit of acrobatics – comes from Bart Soroczynski who plays Il Matto. “My parents were both circus performers in Switzerland and so from a young age I was in it and then after three years we moved to Canada where my parents taught and performed circus.
“My father was head coach for Cirque du Soleil but I was never in that,” he says. “I studied circus in the Canadian National Circus in Montreal, got a degree in circus arts, and then began a world tour of a contemporary circus show, a mix of theatre and dance.
“I have been doing a lot of devised mixed performance since 2001 and have always been fighting with everything I have to be a serious actor and get away from the circus but I always come back. For me this is good because my circus skills serve a story. Doing circus for circus’ sake, I would prefer not to.”
Audrey Brisson, based in London since coming over to train at the Central School of Speech and Drama has mostly performed physical theatre or as an actor-musician “I find myself in shows where you pick up new tricks and for this one I have learned the trumpet.”
When the tour ends in July she will be going to the Edinburgh Festival with a revival of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, a show she previously did with Kneehigh, about Chagall and his wife.
Then at Christmas she will be appearing at the National in Pinocchio directed by John Tiffany. “I will be Jiminy Cricket and it’s centred on puppetering which is a skill I have done a bit of but not a lot so I’m really looking forward to that.”
Stuart Goodwin, previously here in The Country Wife directed at the Crucible by Michael Grandage with Dominic West, is drinking from a Mr Strong mug.
“It’s something my daughter bought me for Christmas as a slight joke,” he laughs. “I kept going home and saying, ‘I am supposed to be the strongest man in the world and look at me, I have got to get rid of this belly’. The mug helped but also the lighting.”