Bards and storytellers – summer entertainment
It would be nice at Ferragosto when all of Italy stops not to talk about the Prime Minister for once, but even around 15 August, it is difficult to avoid him. Going to the theatre is normally an entertainment and nothing more, but this year there is a storyteller who makes opposition to Berlusconi into an evening out.
Italy’s summer shows are justly famous and their settings are spectacular. You can see grand opera in the Verona arena, baroque opera in a Tuscan garden or Greek comedies in Syracuse. Goran Bregovic performs in summer arenas as does Bob Dylan and even the Jethro Tull. There is experimental dance and music on the Janiculum in Rome and 1950s jazz under castle walls in the Marches. Last year, Roberto Benigni kept thousands entranced in a Florence square simply reciting a 700 year old poem. But the poem was the Divine Comedy and Benigni is the quintessence of Tuscan wit and culture.
The variety is almost infinite but the most unlikely and unusual has to be a lone journalist sitting on a stage without props just telling a story. This is Marco Travaglio, the man who more than anyone else personifies opposition to Berlusconi.
On a summer evening, more than 2,000 people paid €25 to sit in the Roman theatre of Ostia to listen to Travaglio explaining Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to power. It was a throwback to simpler times when people gathered in a square or a field and listened to well-known stories or fables. The audience knew the characters and like an English Christmas panto, cheered the heros and booed the villains. Since everyone knows the main points of the narrative, there was little surprise but since no one knows the detail that Travaglio can muster, there were always gasps of disbelief as we learnt or were reminded of the sheer extragavance of the tale unfolding.
For rank improbability, the Berlusconi Saga competes well with Il Trovatore except that every word of the script comes from judicial proceedings. There is also more than a passing resemblance to a Dante reading as the Comedy (especially the Inferno) is a biting comment on the politics and society of 14th C Italy. Only one other contemporary, I think, compares directly to Travaglio; Marco Paolini, an actor-narrator who began some years ago with an acerbic rendering of his native Veneto, Profondo Nord, and then went on to narrate some of Italy’s worst mysteries and disasters, the Vajont dam overflow on 1962 with its negligence, death and cover-up; the downing of the Itavia DC9 near Ustica in 1979 with its death and international obfuscation. These are grand dramas accurately and movingly rendered. But Paolini uses props and takes on parts. Travaglio’s quality is to be able to concentrate Italy’s present disaster into powerful drama just with words.
He is one of the country’s best investigative journalists, a quiet and polite Piedmontese who never raises his voice and, a rarity in public life today, rarely uses expletives. His devastating lines are delivered with a smile rather than a snarl and the terrible truths come with wit and humour. He has produced more than a dozen books on Italy’s political scandal and despite being accused of being a Jacobin leftie, began his career with the great conservative Italian journalist, Indro Montanelli who Travaglio admires and often quotes. Not so long ago, some of the left accused him of being on the right. Apart from the occasional theatre, Travaglio writes an editorial for Il Fatto Quotidiano six days a week and a half hour webcast on Mondays called Passaparola (“pass it on!”) and last year at least, was part of the regular cast of Annozero, one of the RAI political talk shows that Berlusconi would like to close.
Although Berlusconi was obviously the centre of the show, he was certainly not the only subject. Marcello Dell’Utri one of the founders of Forza Italia who was recently given a seven year gaol sentence for mafia association figured prominently but the centre-left was not left out of the line of fire. Massimo D’Alema was given a lambasting, much to the crowd’s delight as was Bersani and other centre-left figures, only Di Pietro was not included.
It was a great evening – just walking around Ostia is a special pleasure even without a show. Leaving the theatre along the umbrella pine avenue, I have no doubt that we all felt particularly virtuous at having done our righteous bit in supporting the opposition to Berlusconi. Until… until… I realised that the whole business had been a damning symbol of Berlusconi’s ultimate victory. He is the ultimate impresario and he had succeeded in reducing the opposition to a side show performing for the converted far from the places where real decisions are made and opinions formed: the media, the demonstrations, even the emasculated parliament. Travaglio’s verve had not changed a single person’s opinion.
On the real stage, the allegations of sleaze against Fini and his brother in law continue to dominate not only the Berlusconi media while allegations of conflicts of interest and money laundering by magistrates and the Bank of Italy against Denis Verdini take third or fourth place. Verdini is one of the PdL’s three coordinators. And then everyone is limbering up to fight over early elections. Berlusconi and Bossi are playing good cop/bad cop with Berlusconi’s people arguing that the de facto constitution says that “the sovereign people” should decide if the present government no longer has a majority. Bossi and his people threaten demonstrations and secession if they don’t have elections. President Napolitano is fighting to maintain the president’s power to dissolve parliament. Even before the end of August, the battle lines are well drawn.