The Voila! Europe festival recently returned to London for its seventh season and one of the highlights was a show by the Italian Compagnia Francesca Caprioli, based in Rome (pictured above). Napoli 44 is a brilliant adaptation of Norman Lewis’ classic tragi-comic account of his experience as a British intelligence officer in the ruined chaos of occupied Naples at the end of World War II. His book Naples 44 is crowded with so many scenes of outrageous drama and vivid characters that only the bravest of playwrights would dream of trying to put it on stage.
Lavinia Carpentieri triumphs in this challenge not only as an expert dramatist but also as a fearless and versatile performer. Her hour-long adaptation, whose title reclaims the narrative from the Italian point of view, fillets Lewis’ reportage and distils from it three scenes in which she plays three women and their desperate survival strategies in the rubble and moral anarchy of Naples. These women may be victims but despite their abjection they have a dignity and passion that sows confusion amongst the inhibited British officers trying to impose order on the city, a task as impossible then as it is now.
A truly Anglo-Italian production and a much-needed example of cultural co-operation with our European friends, Carpentieri and director Caprioli rehearsed the show in London with three superb young British actors, Elliot Baxter, Robert Rickman and Edward Soper, who not only act but tapdance and sing beautifully.
The audience take their seats in the Cockpit Theatre filing past Carpentieri already standing centre stage, a monument to her characters’ suffering. Her play takes vignettes from Lewis and creates memorable dramatic pictures from them, the first as a woman prostituting herself for tins of food – prostitute in this context is never a noun, always a verb – ending with a stark image of naked hunger and her English customer regretful and flustered.
The next short scene in comical counterpoint condenses the saga of the English Captain Frazer and his inamorata Lola, neither speaking the other’s language, which makes a virtue of the bilingual production by placing Lewis himself on stage as the interpreter of Napolitan native Carpentieri’s richly accented tirade against the hapless Frazer’s sexual inadequacy.
For the remainder of the play Carpentieri takes Lewis’ brief mention of an atrocious Allied plan to export diseased women behind German lines to infect the enemy and spins from it a bitter, poignant romance in which one of these women is taught to read and write English, the cast conjuring theatrical magic from the empty space by inscribing English words in chalk across the floor, and in an inspired flight of invention recruits a soldier from the Yorkshire moors offering a copy of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to his student, who transmutes its distant legend of doomed love into poetic soliloquies of anguished desire in the magnificent climax to a play its author calls “my personal love letter to the English language.”