A review by Bruce Dessau, This Is London – 06.04.09
Diminutive actor/comedian Roberto Benigni is best known here for his Oscar-winning role in controversial holocaust film Life Is Beautiful.
In his native Italy, however, he is also famed for his live performances entitled TuttoDante, in which he celebrates his country’s Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri. The show visited London last night for a brief stopover and his enchanting appearance in front of a largely partisan crowd made the Theatre Royal feel more like La Scala.
Before a recital from the Divine Comedy this charismatic clown displayed the idiosyncratic storytelling skills that have made him a superstar. In a mix of Italian and broken English he immediately won over a crowd by excitably explaining that he was “discombololated, frabbergasted, boohaha”— his eccentric verbal gymnastics echoing his physical antics when he clambered over seats to accept his Academy Award in 1998.
A demonstration of his satirical streak came in a succession of crowd-pleasing swipes at the shouty Italian Prime Minister accompanied by a playful smile so wide it could engulf St Peters in Rome: “I thought I was the first Italian in London making a solo show, but Mr Berlusconi preceded me” he grinned. Home affairs did not escape either, with his reference to “two cassettes pornographico”.
Even with the serious business of Dante, Benigni could not resist more gags, alluding to biblical mother-in-law jokes and claiming that purgatory was invented by a pope to make more money by having more masses.
As for the notion of performing in English, he perfectly described it as being akin to “Mr Bean talking about John Milton in Italian”.
By the time he came to the Divine Comedy’s Fifth Canto, proceedings had overrun but no one was complaining. There was pin-drop silence as Benigni switched from passionate babbling to controlled, near-operatic delivery. Even for fans with minimal grasp of Italian the beauty of the poetry was apparent.
If there was a fault it was the title. TuttoDante means “everything about Dante”. This was all about the man on stage.