The Decameron, Shaftesbury Arts Centre

THERE are said to be only seven plots* – but writers, poets, playwrights and novelists have worked an almost limitless number of variations, and few have done it with more energy and saucy humour than the 14th century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio.

The Decameron, a collection of 100 stories, mostly funny and often quite scurrilous, was written during the terrifying days of the plague and the setting is a villa outside Florence where ten young men and women are sheltering for ten days, amusing themselves by telling stories.

Boccaccio used the tales – many gathered and re-worked from ancient legends, Greek and Roman stories and from around late medieval Europe – to comment on and criticise the society of his time. You rapidly spot a pattern – lustful and greedy nuns and monks, bored and frustrated women, and cruel and greedy powerful men. The position of women in society is one with which he seems to have a lot of sympathy, particularly the plight of daughters/sisters kept in virtual prison by fathers and brothers.

Many of the stories crop up in later literature – Chaucer, Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the French dramatist Moliere and so on through the centuries. We have a boundless appetite for stories that show the “great and the good” behaving very badly and getting their comeuppance!

Director and adapter Dave Hollis selected nine stories, performed with the framing device of a touring theatre company rehearsing for a performance for the local Duke. The company is headed by the widow (Sue Cadmore) of the former “Master” and includes a man who wants all the leading roles (Bryan Farrell), some lively young women and the Marini brothers (Mike Johnston, Peter Morris and Marie Stubbs).

It is very much an ensemble piece, with everybody getting their chance to show off their talents. Susan Grant is hilarious as the lustful young wife Peronella in Love In A Tub, as the sacred virgin Alibech who is taught the pleasures of sending the devil down to hell by the hermit Rustico (Peter Morris) and as the thieving young woman in The Fortunes and Misadventures of Andruccio with Bryan Farrell as the hapless horse-dealer who escapes from a cesspit only to be shut in a stone tomb!

Rachel Alexander and Meghan Powell as the Cristina twins had multiple roles as virtuous, saucy and tragic maidens.

Sue Cadmore played everything from a door to the tragic heroine of The Pot of Basil, the dark story of cruel brothers who kill the lover of their sister, who puts his head in a herb pot – it recurs throughout the centuries in many versions including a poem by Keats, a painting by Holman Hunt and various folk songs.

The production looked beautiful – congratulations to stage manager Steve Pocock and his team – and the period musical accompaniment by Volpina was well played and sung by Ann-Louise Richards.

At the interval I overheard a comment about the sadly small audience, that “people don’t come if they don’t know the play” – I hope the final performances get a bigger house. Mr Hollis and his cast and back-stage team deserve it.

* The seven plots, according to the early 20th century novelist and poet Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (known as Q) are: man against man, man against nature, man against himself, man against God, man against society, man caught in the middle and man and woman.


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