Casanova’s memoirs filled with stories of the places he visited, the things he learned, the people he inspired and, of course, the women he loved have always been a source of great inspiration for writers, artists, and directors.
Casanova has been portrayed as a suave but censurable sort in Fellini’s film, and more recently as a lovable, quick-talking chancer in Russell T Davies’ TV version.
And now we have Casanova as a woman.
And why ever not, as the creators of this production, Told By An Idiot, would ask? Casanova was a philosopher, librettist, physician, lawyer, writer, astrologist, mathematician, con-artist and lover why not add one more string to his bow? The much-loved poet Carol Ann Duffy was brought in to affect this transformation (she has given a female voice to other famous historical figures in previous work) and it is to the credit of all involved that Casanova-as-woman becomes much more than a gimmick.
Casanova is, above all, known as a charmer, and sheer charm is not something often attributed to successful women. They’re usually vampy, or hard-nosed, or struggling to defeat the odds. Hayley Carmichael’s Casanova doesn’t struggle with anything; she just uses her ability to make everyone love her to get what she gets what she wants, while doing the same for them. Sex which is here fully clothed, essentially Carry On is just one part of it, as she also gives Voltaire all of his best lines, and Mozart his greatest melodies. This production is more a celebration of what women can achieve, rather than a discussion of whether society would accept a woman which acts like Casanova. In the world portrayed here, everyone is more than just willing to accept her, they literally embrace her with open arms.
For obvious reasons, this is a very physical production; the actors climb all over the sparse set, and each other, with apparent ease despite the obvious complexity of the movement demanded of them Carmichael especially is a stunning physical performer. But this emphasis on physicality means, I think, that we lose something of Casanova’s verbal wit. David Tennant’s Casanova could talk himself out of any situation, or into any bed, but Duffy’s decision to have the characters narrate their stories for the most part, rather than use direct speech, means that we rarely hear those impressive speeches, filled with quick thinking and improvisation, which we might expect.
Interesting things are certainly done with the script, however. Through the use of French, Italian and German as well as English, we come to realise that Casanova, while always drawn back to Venice, is a woman of all places. Her universality extends to time, as well – the costumes may invoke the 18th century, but the language and sound effects, such as helicopters overhead, are thoroughly modern.
Despite the comedy which runs throughout this production, there is a dark undertone. Casanova may be spontaneous, but this is often because she has to be; the play opens with her daring escape from prison, and she never stops running from that point on. Her motto is carpe diem, but this is enforced as much as it is enjoyed.
Hayley Carmichael makes Casanova as charming and joyous a heroine as she needs to be, and the physical work done by all of the actors is incredibly impressive. The show loses pace at times, and it is not perhaps quite as side-achingly funny as the roars of laughter around me would suggest, but it is a fitting celebration of the many things love, art, science, food which enrich all our lives, whether male or female, and which Casanova enjoyed more than most.