Review- Mussolini's Mistresses- Aurora Theatre and Perilous Mouths Entertainment

  4-3-20

 

Mussolini’s Mistresses and their Different Shades of Love for The Dictator

 

By Zabrina Lo

 

It is said that there is always a woman behind every successful man. Benito Mussolini, the Godfather of Italian Fascism, had, as he boasted, as many as twelve mistresses at any given time. The dictator was notorious for his casual love affairs and was outspoken about the traditional role of women in fascist Italy. But how much was known about his wives and mistresses as they were? And what was this husband or lover like in their eyes? Several years ago, when Nicole Garbellini, producer of Aurora Theatre, and Clare Stearns, director of Perilous Mouths Entertainment, had a conversation about Mussolini’s last mistress Clara Petacci, they decided it’s high time the spotlight should be on the women who sculpted Mussolini into the “lion” that he was. And so, there they are, the infamous four who were the most influential to him personally and politically—Clara Petacci (Nicole Garbellini), Margherita Sarfatti (Caterina Foti), Ida Dalser (Stella Garimberti) and Rachele Guidi (Susan Lavender), in this year’s original theatre piece Mussolini’s Mistresses.

 

The tragi-comedy is sectioned mainly into four parts: Guidi, his legitimate wife, who bore him five children as the “ideal” fascist woman; Dalser, his first wife who sold her business to fund his political career; Sarfatti, the aristocrat who taught him how to woo the elite intellectuals; and Petacci who followed him blindly until they met a gruesome end together. It’s no easy feat to sum up the dictator’s life in a short 90-minute play. But Stearns’ script, drawing references from the women’s own words in their diaries, letters and memoirs, captures Mussolini’s various stages of career and sides in a slick performance. The play is well-connected throughout, with the four stories knitted together by the women’s intense and humourous interactions and arguments, some of which, in reality, did take place.

 

What is refreshing about telling Mussolini’s career and personal life from the perspective of the wives and mistresses is how their voices shed a new light on both the dictator and the women around him. Caterina’s Sarfatti dispels the impression of the mistresses as passive preys. Through her frustration of being overshadowed by the man who was intellectually inspired by and emotionally dependent on her, the play highlights how the dictator was not always the independent leader and thinker. When Mussolini’s political ideal unexpectedly diverged from hers, Sarfatti plunged into an abyss of regret and shame, showing that she, too, was human, unlike the unfeeling creature she was remembered to be.

 

Mussolini’s Mistresses isn’t a play that blindly trumpets the independence of women, however. Rather, this piece is both a confession and revelation—and that’s why it feels genuine. Petacci’s and Guidi’s utmost devotion to the sadistic dictator who practised patriarchal leadership might at times be confounding to the audience today—even Sarfatti calls Petacci “stupid” in the play. Yet Stearns ends the play with Guidi reading Mussolini’s confessional letter, which declares his first wife as the one he had always truly loved. Guidi memorised his words from the depths of her heart, long after the letter was destroyed. Finishing the play with a peaceful, sorrowful reading of an intimate message is significant, for it foregrounds the capacity of a woman to love, and her own decision to follow the man she believed in, against the stern eyes of the world.

 

Apart from the well-crafted script, the cast is another highlight of the play. All four actresses deliver a smooth performance, except for one or two minor slips of the tongue, which is understandable given the short one-month rehearsal period. Garbellini, in particular, convincingly creates a naïve façade for Petacci with her childish, clown-like and coquettish toying of the lace umbrellas. The actress completely changes in tone and eye expressions to transform into a dark Petacci in the later scenes of imprisonment and confrontation with the first wife, revealing a fierce young girl who is daring at heart to love unreservedly.

 

The production is played by an all-Italian cast. From a theatrical point of view, the cast’s accents add colours to the characters. The heavier accent of Garbellini creates a more dramatic and vivacious Petacci, whereas the less accented Foti adds solemnity and sophistication to the cultured Sarfatti journalist.

 

But this isn’t the only consideration in the casting. The director notes in a post-premiere interview that Italians know these characters well, and it’s a story with which the contemporary world can still resonate. “Fascism is popular, and, mind you, fascism can be sexy,” she says. With the recent elections of Alessandra Mussolini, the dictator’s granddaughter, in the European Parliament, Mussolini’s Mistresses can’t be timelier and more enticing to invite one to look back at the man—and women—who shaped gender dynamics and world politics.

 

Mussolini’s Mistresses is performed in the McAulay Studio, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Wanchai, on 2, 3 and 4 March 2020.

 

 

Theatre Review: Mussolini’s Mistresses 

3 stars

Review by Harley Schumann

Date of Performance 2 March 2020

 

In 1909, before he was a fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, wrote a lurid historical fiction novel called The Cardinal’s Mistress which lampooned the Catholic Church, by telling tales of the clergy’s mistresses and scandals. In Mussolini’s Mistresses, devised over 100 years later by writer/director/designer Clare Stearns, we see the tables turned as Mussolini’s sexual exploits with mistresses are aired for all to see. 

This was the first-ever production of the play. It comprises four real historical women, all romantic partners of Mussolini, looking back over his life, and engaged in an argument over who most loved the man and whom he most loved. Each presents their case in turn as we are guided through a unique perspective on the history of a – to say the least – divisive figure. The lovers’ tales of Mussolini are fabulous and at times raunchy and scandalous. But they also paint a picture of love life with “Il Duce” that is passionate and sometimes tender. 

The production was simple with minimal set, which focused attention on the storyline rather than the performance. 

But parts of the performance were also notable. It was particularly effective that most of the performers were native Italian speakers. 

This provided a genuineness and allowed their characters in times of high emotion to break out into an authentic bout of (what I assume was) Italian cursing. At times, however, there were slips and some of the delivery felt a little clumsy, as though development had been rushed and more polishing was needed.  

The script focuses heavily on real events, and the dialogue is often comprised of the exact word for word quotes from the main characters’ memoirs, letters and diaries. As a result, the play is extremely informative and the subject matter fascinating. However, the script sometimes resorted to the historical narration which felt overly explanatory and didactic, perhaps emphasising accuracy and quantity of information over the narrative. 

But the story’s concept has a lot of potential. Unlike Mussolini’s 1909 novel, which was probably intended solely to embarrass and enrage the Church, this story serves to add humanity and softness to a man often presented as uncompromisingly brutal. This is controversial, of course. In fact, I would describe each of the relationships presented in the play as abusive in one way or another at the hand of Mussolini. 

But the mistresses don’t see it that way. The lovers sometimes come close to admitting that Mussolini was less than perfect, but any criticism is quickly explained away. The real blame is reserved for others – and more often than not the other mistresses. So on one view, the story is about four women tearing each other down about who was the most pleasurable to their common abuser, and in the process humanising the abuser, who history usually remembers as a tyrant. This is a delicate subject matter to say the least (perhaps now more than ever). But the play suggests that simply dismissing Mussolini as a tyrant or an abuser may be an oversimplification, and this play promotes complexity over simplicity. The lovers are permitted to describe the man how they saw him, even if their account isn’t psychologically healthy, or politically correct, or indeed factually correct. It’s certainly an interesting take, though finesse is needed to execute it appropriately. 

Ultimately, a fascinating and enjoyable production which shows a great amount of promise as early development, but I was left with the impression that more refinement was needed.  


Rate This Show: 1 2 3 4 5 Audience Rating: 3.4