Gabrielle Kimm Writer and Novelist

COMMEDIA, MY STUDENTS and MY SISTER

 It’s November – and that means it’s publication month!  My new novel, THE GIRL WITH THE PAINTED FACE will be published on 21st November and I’m once again in that state of flustered agitation in which I found myself before the arrival of each of my previous two books. Do you know what?  It doesn’t get any easier.

Painted Face1

 I’ve always thought that the process of the creation of a novel is a bit like a pregnancy (the exciting fizz of the initial inspiration could be seen as the conception, the long months of drafting, editing, copy-editing, etc is the three-trimester gestation and this … this last minute blog-writing, event-attending, internet-scanning, nail-chewing, anxious emailing of editor and publicist , etc … this is labour.  Second-stage labour now … arrival is imminent.)

 So what is the new arrival going to be about?  Well, it’s about love and loyalty, addiction and deception, false accusation and misunderstaning.  Does that make sense?  More specifically, the central character is a girl called Sofia, a seamstress in training, who enters the story at speed, falsely accused of theft (accused by an unpleasant customer who wanted rather more from her than the mended shirt for which he had paid …).   Penniless, and desperate to avoid the perils of whoredom, she is introduced to a troupe of travelling actors, who ask her to join them as costume mistress.  Within weeks, though, she is doing much more than just mending ripped breeches and darning torn shirts – she is learning to act.

 She’s delighted about this – partly because she finds that she enjoys being on the stage, but also because she realises that her acting lessons will bring her closer to the young man who plays the anarchic character Arlecchino (Harlequin).   And, as the two become increasingly intimate, Sofia is sure that she has never been happier.

 But not for long.  Trouble seems to follow Sofia (as it has followed her family for years).  After a fêted performance at an aristocrat’s castle, she is accosted by the womanising owner – and the following morning the man is found dead.  Sofia finds herself on the wrong end of a false accusation again – but this time it’s an accusation of murder.

 And that’s as much of the plot as you’re getting!

 I thought I might introduce you to the idea of Commedia dell’Arte though, and to one or two of the characters.  Commedia troupes were (as Commedia expert Pete Talbot explained it to me) part of the ‘carnivalesque’ tradition – that is, activities on the streets which marked the beginning and end of Lent (during which, of course, meat (or carne, in Italian) is forbidden to Catholics).  Many of these activities were anti-authority and anarchic … as Pete explained, if you have traditionally ‘scheduled’ occasions when everyone is out behaving badly together, it’s hard for the authorities to pin it onto any individual, so for the 16th century performer, it was a good occasion to indulge in a bit of satire, direct criticism of the powers-that-be and on occasion, a spot of downright rebellion.

  Pete says, ‘These players included improvising ‘fools’ in masks who barked like barrow boys, leapt like monkeys, and stood on one leg to play the mandolin, literate actors who kept speeches in commonplace books and learnt them by heart, lovers and servetti with painted faces (hence the title) who moved with the grace of Renaissance dancers and talked with the lyricism of poets, all assembled on the spot on trestle stages in a dynamic interchange with raucous crowds gathered outdoors in the piazzas of cities like Venice, Naples and Bologna.’

 So there’s an anarchic feel to Commedia shows.  You’re never quite sure whether what you think will happen, actually will!  It’s a tradition of archetypes – it contains a number of stock characters (usually masked) whom any 16th century audience would have recognised instantly.  To try to get your head around this idea, think of Charlie Chaplin.  We know him as the Little Tramp straight away; although he is a specific character in each film, he’s also always the Little Tramp . . .  but he’s also every hard-done-by person who has ever pitted himself against the rich and powerful. 

 There are far too many Commedia characters to talk about them all here, so for the moment, I’m going to focus on just a couple.  My two central characters, Sofia and Beppe, play two of the most recognisable Commedia characters – Arlecchino and Colombina (Harlequin and Columbine in English). 

 In Commedia tradition, Arlecchino is a servant, usually working for one of the more pompous and self-important characters like Il Capitano.  Arlecchino thinks of himself as being canny and clever, and he is physically agile, but he’s actually a bit of an idiot, and is always getting into terrible trouble.  He hatches complex schemes to get himself and others out of the messes he creates , though his schemes rarely work.  He’s in love with Colombina but might be distracted by any other pretty woman who comes anywhere near him.  Arlecchino always wears a jacket and trousers patterned in diamond shaped patches (which in the very beginning were probably leaves stitched together, and probably originated from the same traditions as The Green Man)  He has a black mask and a black woollen hat, and carries a thing called  a batocchio – which is also known as a slap-stick (hence the comedy term).  This is a weird sort of wooden bat, which cracks like a bull-whip when you smack it against your leg and can be used in all sorts of daft ways for comedic effect on stage!

 I had a brainwave when I thought about how to illustrate my post.   I teach in a performing arts school – the very wonderful Arabesque School of Performing Arts – so,  rather than just look for stock images on Google, I decided to ask a couple of my lovely students if they’d like to pose for me   They happily obliged, and my artist-and-photographer sister, Buffy Kimm, took the pictures.   The costumes come from The Rude Mechanical Theatre Company’s 2013 production of ‘Harlequin Goes to the Moon’ and were generously lent by Pete Talbot.

 Here’s Toby Corner,abby and toby 3 dressed as Arlecchino, in typical pose.  Arlecchino is clearly distressed by some piece of skulduggery which has gone badly wrong!

  The love of Arlecchino’s life is Colombina.  She is a servant, too (known in Italian as a servetta.  She’s sharp and canny and clever, a bit of a gossip, probably one of the few sensible female characters in the tradition. She’s in love with Arlecchino, but has no illusions about him – she knows all too well that he’s an idiot!  Author John Rudlin describes her as ‘the still centre of the turning wheel [on stage], in on everything that is going on, she exerts a benevolent influence on the outcome.’  She can be flirtatious, but ‘although she seems sexually very knowing, she is sometimes a virgin when it suits her.’

 Here is lovely Abigail Fell, in Colombina’s costume, in a traditional Colombina pose.  In fact, she IS  my ‘Girl With a Painted Face’!abby and toby 2

And lastly here are Arlecchino and Colombina in tender mode, sharing a moment’s intimacy. ( Bless them!)  Commedia actors don’t actually touch lips on stage (it risks messing up the make-up) so the kiss happens in mid-air, with the mouths an inch or so apart.abby and toby 1

 I hope this has given you a hint of the flavour of Commedia.  It’s been a wonderful voyage of discovery for me, researching and learning about the traditions of this extraordinary form of theatre.  If you live within reach of the south coast of England, and would like to see a commedia show for yourself, come and see Pete Talbot’s troupe, The Rude Mechanical Theatre Company, perform next summer.  Here’s a link to their website – http://www.therudemechanicaltheatre.co.uk/

 And here’s a link to my sister’s website. http://www.buffykimm.co.uk/   She’s a talented and innovative artist and photographer, and very generous with her time!  We actually took these shots of my students in my parents’ leaf-strewn back garden, and it was all thanks to Buffy’s wizardry that they’ve been transported all the way to Venice!

This will link you through to the Arabesque  website  http://www.arabesqueschool.co.uk/