The National Theatre’s smash hit of 2011 borrowed directly from the theatrical style commedia dell’arte.
One Man, Two Guvnors with James Corden was packed with improvisation and comedy, all driven along by a servant and master’s relationship.
Its success was in part because it kept a close eye on original traditions (which first began to appear in the 1550s with the actors and characters, each with their own storyline, at the centre). Focusing on a warring lackey and his bosses, it threw in centuries of British humour to go with the Italian model.
For 15 years, a Sussex company run by Pete Talbot has also been trying to push its own strand of commedia dell’arte.
He runs Sussex’s Rude Mechanical Theatre Company and is an expert on the form – he trained with the maestro Antonio Fava at the Scuola Internazionale dell’Attore Comico in Reggio Emilia, Italy.
“What we have done is to try to go beyond the Italianess of it and go back to core issues which are whole-body acting, being profoundly non-naturalistic and dealing with archetypes and not attempting to reflect the natural world.”
By way of explanation he offers The Simpsons.
“In the same way Homer and Bart are the essence of a certain kind of American people, we make our plays using characters who are representative of certain kinds of people.
“At the same time, with the improvisation side we tried to choose a method of working which is more about using traditional tools than trying to reproduce storylines or copying.”
Rude Mechanical has traditionally preferred to work in rural communities. Its touring history is a list of nine-week summer jaunts, travelling to tiny country hamlets and villages across the South and performing outdoors.
It has a 6,000-person database and many of them return every year to see the shows.
Talbot says the rural touring is propelled by a love of communities and the importance of sustaining them.
“I feel sad in contemporary society that they are being lost in the cacophony of noise from cities because they are small enough to sustain relations in ways that once were commonplace.”
The advantage is Rude Mechanical has become close to its audience. “We’ve got to know local people and it changes the nature of theatre experience. People come every year so they get to know the way we work. We can share a common landscape.”
But things are changing. The company is about to embark not only on its urban debut but also its first shows under a roof.
The reason is the company’s supporters in Brighton and Hove. Also, understandably, financial pressures mean it needs to tour twice a year – and during the winter village halls are better than village greens.
Talbot, a former teacher who quit the profession 18 years ago, is the only full-time staff member, but Rude Mechanical has a core of 12 to 15 actors who double up as musicians and work on four-month contracts.
The three actors for its latest production, The Dressing Book, are all recent parents and Talbot is keen to make a point of helping actors with young children get back into the business.
The Dressing Book is set in 1795 and is about two women who turn up to the same ball with the same dress on.
The comedy develops into a polemic about the role of women in the late 18th century. It reflects how women were confined by society to a domestic role and had to be compliant with their husbands’ demands.
“It becomes a love story, too,” adds Talbot. “Women in late 18th century society married primarily because they had to survive. It was rarely about love. It was about patronage, really, and being able to survive at all.
“It was a world where women weren’t able to express themselves as individuals in their capacity to love and live.”
Talbot says audiences should expect big costumes but not the commedia’s traditional masks.
“We use bright coloured fabric wigs. Costumes are cartoonised, which is very much a principal of commedia, because a cartoon is an abstraction of a character which takes its essential features and concentrates on that.”
He says the script incorporates poems and characters comically trading lines backwards and forwards quickly. It is written in a way people don’t speak.
“I write in that manner because this is set in 1795 and is about domestic imprisonment of women.
“I tried to use Georgian language, heavy and domineering, to reflect the mode of male domination of women in that period, so it is not straightforward or just English from the street.”
He says the key thing about why Rude Mechanical works is that it expresses characters though whole bodies.
“We work as much with feet and hands as with words – we combine physical stuff with text, so it is a real combination.”
The Dressing Book is at venues across Sussex all week, including The Nightingale Theatre, Brighton, on Thursday, November 29. Shows start at 3pm and 7.30pm, tickets £10/£9/£7. Call 01323 501260