First published in The Times, Tuesday October 4 2016
Italians have been migrating to Scotland since the mid-19th century. Yet, for all the disproportionate achievements of Scots with Italian ancestry – across food, sport, entertainment and the arts – cultural depictions have tended to remain restricted to the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars and the fish and chip shop.
This ambitious new piece of theatre, written and directed by Laura Pasetti, is something of a breath of fresh air, offering an exclusively female perspective on Italian-Scottish immigration over the course of a turbulent century. The lively, handsome production, which features beautiful painterly lighting by Manuel Frenda, combines traditional music and a variety of first-person accounts to build a rich portrait of women’s lives across three generations.
In creating her script, Pasetti drew on an archive of hundreds of verbatim recordings collected by the University of Edinburgh as part of the Italian-Scottish Research Project Cluster Project. Indeed, the sheer volume of competing voices and incidents in the 70-minute show occasionally poses a threat to overall narrative clarity. The opening scenes in particular feature such a cacophony of overlapping stories, delivered in both languages by the six-strong acting ensemble, that we strain to hear exactly what is being said.
Pic: Roberto Ricciuti
As the pace settles, however, the individual voices emerge more strongly. We hear, inevitably, of the emotional impact of leaving one’s homeland, mainly to escape grinding poverty, and the struggle to settle and adjust to a strange new country, often in the face of hostility. Though much of the sentiment is familiar, often the turn of phrase is vivid. “Here the rain never stops,” says one new arrival to the west coast. “When it stops outside, it starts inside.”
The co-production between Charioteer Theatre and the Piccolo Teatro di Milano really finds its feet during the sequence dealing with the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s and 30s, and its implications for the Italian diaspora. A breathless account of an Italian youth camp, in which the young narrator is swept along with the cause of the “fascist revolution” is quickly contrasted with the hardships experienced by the Italian women living in Scotland during World War II, many of whose husbands and sons were interned or deported.
Pic: Roberto Ricciuti
The overarching theme is one familiar from all migration stories: namely, the vexed question of how to assimilate in an adopted country while trying to hold on to aspects of another cultural identity and traditions. Pasetti addresses this prescient issue with a marked lightness of touch, drawing fine performances from her cast and interweaving the gloomier, sadder passages with infectious, exuberant song-and-dance numbers, all set to wonderful live accordion accompaniment from the musician Caroline Anderson Hussey.
Touring Scotland to October 15. Charioteertheatre.co.uk