"Longing for love and light"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 03/05/17

Confession. I have never seen Fellini’s ‘La Strada’. The words on the flyer should have prepared me for a brilliant, but bleak, experience at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre, but the image suggested an abundance of colour, cheer and razzmatazz. Sally Cookson’s stunning direction ensured all three, but in tantalising, fleeting scraps reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s rags of light. Fragments of jewel- like colour illuminate the drabness of the unrelenting fight, timeless and terrible, against poverty, starvation, human trafficking, forced migration and marginalisation.

How does naïve and gullible Gelsomina, eloquently played by Audrey Brisson, survive in such a world? Sold by her desperate mother so the smaller children can eat, she is under the dubious protection of violent strongman Zampano – a subtle, dark performance by Stuart Goodwin. Stuart convinces us of the raw brutality of surviving on the road with just your wits and a smattering of talent, without entirely relinquishing the hope for redemption and atonement. His enemy, Il Matto, (Bart Sorocyzinski) offers a grateful audience the possibility of more light, more optimism and more hope. Bart’s bonhomie, deft unicycling , courage and friendship all offer a powerful counterpoint to Zampano, as well as giving Gelsomina some comfort and inspiration. It was thrilling to see her find her musical voice.

And oh, the music. Benji Bower’s score is sublime, and the talented musicians in the ensemble perform for us as if their lives depended on it. Tim Dalling, Luke Potter and TJ Holmes are listed as the key musicians but all the actors seem blessed with musical talent. The international cast worked together with astonishing beauty and crackling energy; evoking the sea, the weather, the raw camaraderie of transient lives, taking comfort however it presents itself; notably sex, alcohol, laughter, and music.

The lighting was remarkable, and the Telegraph Road/Golgotha set served the drama well. The costumes were brilliantly thought out, with nuanced levels of poverty. As ever, the glamour and colour of the circus livery scarcely conceals the tawdriness that walks hand in hand with desperation. Those involved are not credited on the handout. I wish they were, as the appearance of this production is first-class and deserves acknowledgment.

This production will haunt me. When I see boatloads of refugees adrift on treacherous waters. When I see shanty towns, makeshift, gimcrack. When I weep futile tears as a child’s body washes up on the shore.

That the human spirit has moments of illuminating grace amidst the darkness, chaos and cruelty is miraculous. That our hearts can crack and break under the unbearable tragedy of it makes those moments of grace more valuable than anything hidden in safe deposit boxes. Sally Cookson's production serves to remind us of this.

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes this in her moving tribute to kindness:
‘Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.’

‘La Strada’ is on its way to the West End. There’s still time to catch it in Exeter and at other places on the road.

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