I quickly decided the only way to get through the two month Comedia Dell’Arte course I had accidentally enrolled in was to Audrey Hepburn it. Much like my heroine in “Sabrina” I would spend my time in Italy improving myself. I’d survive on fruit and nibbled croissants, drink two litres of water every day and spend my weekends visiting art galleries and jazz bars at night. I would return to my home town, a chicer, thinner and more glamorous version of myself. People would say “Gráinne, you’ve changed- you’re so different” and I’d say “Oh I’m sorry, could you repeat that? My brain thinks in Italian now”.
The classes themselves were my first challenge; Audrey had it easy. All she had to do was delicately make soufflés in Parisian cookery classes; I had to perform medieval comedy. Have you ever tried to make people laugh doing stuff you don’t find remotely amusing at all? Only the cast of “My Family” know my pain. The funniest thing you can do in Commedia is pretend you have found a flea in your hair and then pretend to eat that flea. The Mediterranean students buckled with mirth, the Canadians and Americans smiled slightly sycophantically and I like a nervous gangster with Joe Pescie shooting bullets at my feet, just kept going.
By week two even flea eating was beginning to get old. I finally found myself onstage on my own and I had depleted all the insects, in every part of my body. It was crunch time, I had to just stop messing about, stop slagging off Italian comedy and actually use this opportunity to stretch a new muscle, learn a new skill, take a chance and force myself to find my own unique voice.
“Drink! Girls!Feck! Arse!”
Now I was a joke thief. I was actually ripping off Father Ted. The fruit of my heroes’ years of hard work, the worst comedy crime, the shame, the poker hot shame... But I didn’t see looks of disgust and vanishing respect in the eyes of my expectant audience, I saw laughter and love and acceptance…because they had never seen Father Ted had they? They were all bloody foreigners; they thought I was making this fantastic grotesque old man character up myself. That simmering shame hit boiling point and evaporated into great gusts of giddy exhilaration…
“Girls! Lovely girls! Hairy Japanese Basterds”
More laughter, more love, more respect. I didn’t feel bad, I felt like an evil genius. Take that skinny, bendy, Spanish girls with olive skin, I was hilarious. By the end of the week my catch phrases were the stuff of legends. In sketches they bounced off the walls and ricocheted around the room; I’d have a cunning plan, I couldn’t beeeleive it! It suited me sir!
The time I improvised leaning against a bar and falling through the opened counter- I was nearly carried out on their shoulders! I felt like a comedy version of George McFly, but I was not just cheating and nicking other peoples jokes for fleeting popularity, I was making an important cultural point. Nowadays humour is just funnier than medieval folk theatre. Northern Europeans are wittier than their southern friends. Every time I made an American laugh, thinking that they were enjoying Renaissance comedy in it’s purest form and really they were clapping at something I’d completely nicked from “Absolutely Fabulous” I felt the thrill of victory.
But I had underestimated Italian theatre, I’d come to its homeland, taken the piss and I knew it was only a matter of time before the gods of Harlequin and Il Captiono made their anger felt. So when on the morning of our first acrobatics class our teacher breezily announced that the starting position was a handstand, I thought my karma had arrived. Ignoring my classmates misguided words on encouragement, I explained that the reason I couldn’t do it wasn’t about confidence, it was simply a combination of my body’s complete lack of aerodynamicy and the laws of physics and his old pal gravity. Couldn’t I just start with hedgehog rolls?
“Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine”, my classmates encouraged me. “Are we bothered? Does our faces look bothered?”
“I will fall on my face and injure myself” I explained
But who cares, they reasoned, it’s was just us in the class, a local class for local people.We'll have no trouble here...
So as I leaned against the wall, upside down, my legs supported by two encouraging Spanish girls, my sweaty t-shirt falling over my red perspiring trembling face, exposing my wobbling belly to a cheering class. I really thought OK Medieval Theatre you’ve had your fun, we’re even now. I was wrong. Acrobatics was for only half the course, for the rest we were studying tango. It would be torture and it had nothing to do with fancy footwork.
Now, I’ve always considered myself very lucky to be blessed with low standards and high expectations;in practical terms that means I will pretty much fancy any man, heterosexual or otherwise, that I spend any amount of time with. So by mid course I had massive crushes on every single guy in my class. The tango classes meant not only did my twenty two year old self have to get breath in your face intimate with every male on the course but I had to do all the grinding, all the staring in their eyes sexiness with deadly seriousness and Not. Laugh. Once. It was like a sexual confidence form of “Operation”, a Chinese water torture; my personal Room 101. Every class I’d almost combust with nervous, panicked hysterical embarrassment. My inability to keep a straight face was at first few endearing in a Baby from Dirty Dancing kind of way, but it quickly soured to annoying, curdled to irratating and set into just plain weird. The Mediterranean girls could not understand why I found it all so impossible, “Just be sexy” they reassured me, which was like asking a blind person if they ever tried just really squinting their eyes.
The final straw was when our teacher decided to sepreate the sexes and as the music played the women were to lock eyes with a man of their choosing, walk sexily across the room and claim their partner with a seductive dance. As my Latin sisters shimmied past me, I finally cracked and fled to the toilets. Hunched over the wash basin I repeated to myself” Relax, you’re Irish, we have good personalities, we don’t need to be sexy” until I could breath again. I never went back.
Being Audrey was proving harder than it looks. At weekends I’d pop on my fifties skirt, tie my shirt coquettishly at my waist and in my ballet flats wander around the old town centre. I’d sip the coffee in the square, I’d read novels late night in the cafes and I’d wander round ruins carrying bunches of flowers. But I didn’t feel winsome, carefree and young, I felt bored, empty and lonely. I wanted to go back to my home town changed but hadn’t I come all this way to escape from the place- why was I rushing to go back? But unless I returned how could I know I was changing, improving, getting better? If there was no one there to watch my transformation and tell you it was happening, how could you know it was real? What was the point? As I sipped my coffee I realised, that if I saw myself from the outside in, I’d be so envious and assume my life was perfect, like Audrey Hepburn’s in fact. The thought made my head spin and I felt like I was floating out into space.