Friday 8 June 2018

San Domino @ The Tristan Bates Theatre

San Domino @ The Tristan Bates Theatre

While in Britain we tend to focus on our own history of homosexuality and its eventual decriminalisation in 1967, it's easy to forget about other countries. San Domino looks across the Mediterranean to fascist Italy in the years leading up to WWII. While homosexuality wasn't a crime, under Mussolini's rule the country held virile masculinity in high esteem for repopulation.

In Sicily in particular, Chief of Police Alfonso Molina would raid coffee shops, bars and dance halls, outraged at the visibility of homosexuals. Men were sent off to prison islands - like the titular San Domino - which became places of injustice and, paradoxically, a sort of gay paradise where men were able to be more open about their sexuality and escape the war.

San Domino begins with a pre-show of contemporary songs in the bar, setting a tone of authenticity that the remains of the musical cannot sustain. Tim Anfilogoff's dialogue is full of modern anachronisms, his characters speaking in slogans and hooks that heavy handedly relay the importance of the themes rather than depicting believable humans.

The almost all-male cast is large and underdeveloped, each character just a 2D stereotype of homosexuality. A closeted priest conflicted over his sexuality and his devotion to God. A self-hating younger man who gets abused by a hyper masculine lover. A prison guard struggling with temptation. A drag queen as the flirtatious matriarch of the group.

There's a misplacement of focus here too. The relationships between the men are too often behind a veil - seedy rather than celebrated - while the most believable pairing is ironically the straight relationship between a man wrongly accused and the island's only woman.

The show never quite balances the sense of injustice against these men with a sense of freedom and the creeping anxiety of war. Instead there's clumsy modern humour and tragic emotional beats that miss the mark without the required depth of character.

Alan Whittaker's music also struggles with authenticity. Folk songs played on accordion, fiddle and clarinet create a wartime mood, but lurches into folk-rock ballads feel off-kilter. Melodies crack under the weight of storytelling, lacking elegant nuance.

Under the direction of Matthew Gould, San Domino has a sweaty, testosterone-fuelled atmosphere and the performances from the cast are impassioned with plenty of gutsy singing. Andrew Pepper stands out as Pietro/Melissa and Callum Hale has a powerful (if underused) voice as Paulo. There's plenty of heart here that highlights an intriguing moment in queer history, but the material ultimately isn't strong enough.


Watch: San Domino runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 30th June.

San Domino @ The Tristan Bates Theatre

San Domino @ The Tristan Bates Theatre
Photos: Rachael Cummings