Friday 29 November 2019

I Shot Mussolini - Theatre Review

What: I Shot Mussolini
When: 27 November - 8 December 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and directed by: Alice Bishop
Performed by: Bridgette Burton, Michael F Cahill, Anthea Davis, Sophie Lampel, Marco Lawrence, Heather Lythe, Matthew Molony, and Greg Parker
Lighting by: Stelios Karagiannis
Sound by: Nat Grant
Video projection by: Salvador Castro
Stage managed by: Hayley Fox
Sophie Lample, Bridgette Burton, Michael F Cahill, Heather Lythe, Anthea Davis, Matthew Molony, and Greg Parker - photo by: Renan Goksin
We live in troubled times at the moment with growing nationalism and plutocracy and isolationalism. It is causing many artists to see parallels between the early years of last century and this century. I Shot Mussolini is one such reaction, investigating idealogical conflicts within Italy and concurrent activities in Ireland (with a brief nod to Hitler). This is the play showing at La Mama this fortnight.

I Shot Mussolini is a dramatisation of the story of Violet Gibson, an Irish Baron's daughter who went to Italy and tried to shoot Benito Mussolini - the recently established dictator of Italy - through his car window. There is little actual documentation about Gibson and why and how she did what she did, but we know a lot about things which were happening in troubled Europe at that time, and Bishop (writer and director) has created an intriguing mystery adventure with hints of the Dan Brown style of layers and intrigue.

With little actual historical evidence, Bishop has cleverly interwoven the fanaticism of the 'Il Duce' fervour with the mysticism of Catholicism and the secrecy, subterfuge, and violence of the IRA. It is worth noting that whilst these links cannot be proven, they may also be incredibly true... There were three attempts on Mussolini's life in 1926 of which Gibson's was the first. She may well have been a part of some bigger conspiracy or, as history contends, a mad women.

So first, some background. In 1919 Ireland began it's War of Independence and which failed in Dublin after some atrocious degree of bloodshed around 1920 - 1921. Gibson was a Dubliner. On the other hand, her father became an important instrument of the British restoration of order in Dublin so we can never know what Gibson's position on the IRA was - conspirator or casualty?

Meanwhile, the IRA was also trying to set up a gun running deal in Italy with Mussolini and one of his opponents. A windfall deal was reached which would have been to the benefit of the IRA, but Mussolini's main interest was to quash his opponent and so the IRA got screwed over. Thus, there was motive for them to hate Mussolini and perhaps try and organise an assassination.

In 1925 Mussolini dismantled the democracy and established himself as a dictator. Mussolini was a staunch atheist and was in a battle with the Catholic Church as well. Gibson had a complicated history with religion and a questionable past with regard to mental health and institutionalisation. Her mother was a Christian Scientist and Gibson, herself, explored Theosophy before settling comfortably into the Catholic faith. In 1926 Gibson came to Italy and attempted to assassinate 'Il Duce'.

Bishop has created a visual world of black and white to reference the old news movie reels of that time, which were screened before feature movies. Instead of a full screen though, the projecting surface is 5 tall flats which also reference those wonderful ancient Roman columns and the grandeur and mystique of antiquity which follows older faiths. Castro uses these columns to brilliant effect switching between divine light, the dank grey stones of a convent/prison, and ancient architecture. The only hint of colour comes towards the end as Karagiannis (lighting) brings in orange and blue and starts to reveal the spaces behind the columns hinting at an enlightenment which never comes and a conflagration which does.

The play begins with Gibson (Lythe) in a dark room with a gothic chair. She is marking a newspaper and putting an object in a small bag, testing it's weight. She is edgy and nervous. Next, we see 5 heavenly figures and she talks to them. Here is perhaps the genius in Bishop's interpretation of this story. We don't know who these creatures are or what they are. Are they real people? Are they angels? Are they memories?

It is eventually revealed they are Catholic saints who have come to visit her. The cleverness is in which saints Bishop has chosen: St Dymphna (Burton), the Irish saint of mental illness; St Teresa of Avila (Davis), the saint of mysticism; St Catherine of Siena (Lawrence), a mystic and activist; and St Joan of Arc (Lampel), the warrior women who went into battle because the voices in her head told her to do God's work.

So Gibson chats to her...guides?.. and then heads off to shoot Mussolini during a parade. I can tell you this because it all happens in the first 15 minutes. This play is not about the assassination attempt, it is a crime thriller trying to sift through the veil of confusion to try and understand what was going on in Gibson's head and the world's temperament at that time. At the centre of it all, sparring all the while with Gibson, is Chief Superintendent Pennetta (Parker).

Parker is magnificent, holding the sturdy centre of the vortex as the world shatters into meaninglessness and a fractious and feisty Lyth swings between innocence and provocation. With the gravitas of Patrick Stewart and the doggedness of Columbo, Pennetta is convinced Gibson is not insane, but can he prove it and is it in anybody's interest for him to do so?

Bishop has written and lively and surprisingly funny script despite the serious subject and the ominous overtones which make watching I Shot Mussolini a great night of theatre. Her direction is also light, clever and confident. I love how perfectly she demonstrates the wonderfully unique quality of theatre vs film - the fact that the whole stage is in the scene and the entire mis-en-scene is a picture of life and activity. None of this detracts from us being able to focus and understand. After all, this is how we experience life. Things are always going on around us.

The acting ensemble as a whole are magnificent, working together with a synergy you rarely see and a confidence which comes with maturity and assuredness of intention and purpose in every moment. I can't list favourite actors but perhaps I do have some favourite characters. Cahill's Enrico Ferri was confident as smug as a lawyer who never loses, and Molony was a surprisingly empathetic investigating magistrate.

If there is one thing missing for me, it was the simple question of why do we need to see this story in Melbourne right now? Perhaps this is one of the shortfalls of having the writer direct. In the program notes Bishop talks about her anger with Donald Trump and the state of the world, and in light of that it can definitely be seen there may be a conflation of Trump with Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, but it is very, very implicit at best. Some kind of interplay between place and time - even perhaps just some small hints in the projections - would have finished this off for me. I admit I do like my theatre to give me some idea why I should spend my time being there, in the room, watching these ideas...and I don't really want to have to read the program notes to find that out.

Despite what I just said, I Shot Mussolini is a wonderfully written and expertly crafted piece of theatre and if you want to see the best artists doing their best work, this is the show to go to. This is how you make theatre.

4.5 Stars

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