We have been rehearsing The Dentist, a piece of pure, classic Commedia Dell'arte by David Griffiths, for the past few months. It has been an interesting and challenging journey beset by so many personal hurdles for many members of the cast, but we have constantly reassembled ourselves and pulled together as a group in the true spirit of ensemble. This has demonstrated everything that is so wonderful about being part of a theatre company. There is love, support, humour, and understanding. We are truly blessed to have these experiences in our lives; they are food for the soul, creating memories and knowledge that will feed us through our lives wherever our paths may take us afterwards.
I have found it immensely difficult to give myself to creating these roles at this time. I am struggling to come to terms with my mother's dementia and ill health, being her carer whilst holding down a job, and running a family. But it is the dementia that has shaken me to the core. To see someone changing before your eyes, to see the negative aspects of their personality become magnified is truly horrible. To hold on to the fact that this is not the person we know is bloody hard!
It has been the searching for Arlecchino that has given me something to focus on. To be in the rehearsal studio where I have to focus and take control of my emotions, putting them on one side whilst I concentrate solely on finding this character has not been an easy task. The character is far removed from me.
Now that I have seen that written down, I wonder how far from any of us Arlecchino actually is. He is, I suppose, one aspect of our own character; one of the archetypal parts that make up our whole consciousness. He represents the baser parts of our humanity; he is hunger and gratification, but not greed. He is the innocent, naive part, the child-like part of our psyche. He follows his instincts and desires but unlike the more sinister and aggressive character Brighella, Arlecchino knows contentment until the next hunger pang strikes! He lives in his senses, and makes decisions based on his 'sense life'. You could say that he is driven by the desire for comfort. There is no sense of him being able to put himself outside his own sense of "what I need" and feel any empathy for another person. There is little chance of him demonstrating any kind of self sacrifice for someone else. He is totally self-centred.
This then led me to design and make his coat. In the play he is described as a "patchwork quilt" and as I was arranging the harlequin patches the discussion arose whether they should be placed in a logical, regular pattern, or in a random sequence. This, I thought, was a very interesting point as Arlecchino's thinking is not random, it is energised by his instincts and he is able to put this energised thinking into practice. He is not like the character of Dottore who is all theory and rambling sentences but little substance. So I decided that there should be a logical pattern to the coat but not symmetrical as this would suggest a balance in his thinking, borne out of an ability to reflect on his actions whereas he is more about action and practice born of need /desire without any reflection to balance it.
Arlecchino is very human. He has humour, friendship, love and relationships. He is not cut off from others or isolated in his misery like the egotistical Pantalone. Neither is he completely self-sacrificing - he likes his comforts too much! He is not 'free' like Flávio who has compassion, kindness, and, despite the best efforts of his father, achieves a kind of balance and resolution at the end of the play. Arlecchino aspires to true freedom but is not quite there yet.
Julia O'Keeffe is a founding member of Paper Zoo Theatre Company and can be seen in several guises in The Dentist.