Casanova, the famous Venetian philanderer, was an intellectual, an alchemist, an accomplished musician, a writer, a fugitive, a traveller and a serial lover. Could such a person be a woman? That is what Told by an Idiot imagines with its new stage adaptation of the story of Casanova, with the eponymous Italian embodied by actress Hayley Carmichael. Caroline Bishop was at the Lyric Hammersmith for the first night.
The story of Casanova, as told in his memoirs, is so outlandish and extravagant a tale that it seems the perfect fodder for comedy stage adaptation, and it is tackled by author Carol Ann Duffy and Told by an Idiot in a surreal comedy-tragedy that has the feel of a film in the silent era.
The multi-lingual cast gives the production an apt European flavour as Casanova, escaping from custody in 18th century Venice, travels all over Europe, pursued by a detective. She instantaneously, almost innocently, attracts everyone she meets – men, women, Mozart, Voltaire, even a bull – seducing them with her talents as a violinist, a composer, an intellectual and a beautiful woman.
The idea for this gender-reversed production of Casanova, says director Paul Hunter in the programme notes, was to see what would happen if a woman had the same freedom and sexual license as Casanova the man. It is refreshing to see Carmichael’s Casanova seducing everyone she desires and satisfying her sexual appetite with all the freedom and nonchalance enjoyed by the real-life person she embodies; however, the production asks questions of its own premise in the darker moments of the play. It is said that Casanova’s generosity was often taken advantage of, and we see this here as our female Casanova encounters a man on her travels who does exactly that. Our heroine falls madly in love with the young man and he takes her in and satisfies her every need – until her money runs out and Casanova is thrown out on her ear. While the real Casanova undoubtedly had his vulnerabilities, those of his female counterpart seem greater – as this female version finds herself pregnant.
It is moments like this – coupled with the caricature-like costumes, atmospheric lighting and Iain Johnstone’s quirky, classical-inspired score which conjures 17th century Europe – that give the production a darker, slightly disconcerting quality, balancing out the slapstick comedy.
As Casanova’s journey continues, it becomes ever more incredible. Encounters with Voltaire, Mozart and Catherine the Great, the ominous presence of the voiceless detective, an evil Countess and her band of housekeepers, and the man in the moon who watches over Casanova combine to make this the most unreal real story there is – for whatever gender.
Casanova runs until 24 November.