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It's hard to laugh

Jonathan Croall goes shopping with commedia dell'arte I want you to play big, there must be volcanoes, revolutions and earthquakes in your stomachs - please."

Antonio Fava, a leading expert in commedia dell' arte, clutches his stomach and makes a grotesque face. For him, such actions have become second nature: for a bunch of slightly diffident English teenagers, they are something of a challenge.

A short, chunky Italian with a vibrantly expressive face and body, Fava is introducing a group of Year 10 GCSE drama students from Wallingford School, Oxfordshire, to the commedia dell'arte and its stock characters. But it's no easy task to persuade them to perform in the extravagant, stylised manner of the ever-hungry Zanni or the Despairing Lovers.

The work becomes less intimidating when the students get the chance to use leather masks for improvising a scene involving a blustering Capitano. "You have to show the audience that he's a coward, a complete disaster," Fava says, eyes flashing, and the students begin to warm to the idea.

The session was one of several education and outreach events in the county linked to the Oxford Stage Company's touring production of Love is a Drug, created by Antonio Fava and the company from one of the original commedia scenarios, La Creduta Morta (The Woman Who Appeared Dead).

The events, made possible by an award under the Sainsbury's Arts for All scheme, have involved students from schools and colleges throughout Oxfordshire, and have included workshops (in Italian and English), lectures, a residency, and Commedia Goes Shopping - a piece of impromptu street theatre played among startled shoppers at Sainsbury's in Kidlington.

Bringing Antonio Fava here is quite a coup for the Oxford Stage Company. He has worked with Dario Fo's Theatre Company, trained with Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and now runs an international school for comic actors in Italy. Much in demand all over Europe, he clearly lives and breathes commedia dell'arte, and talks passionately about its value as a modern theatre form.

"It is not a piece of spaghetti, it is not banal or superficial, it is about death and love and survival," he says. "It is cruel but not bad, it is innocent like a baby, but destructive like war. Only very good actors can play it, because it is very disciplined but also very free."

Later that day, in Oxford, he works on both the freedom and the discipline with more Year 10 students, this time from Wood Green School, Witney, who will be performing a curtain raiser to Love is a Drug at the Oxford Playhouse the following night.

This GCSE drama group, with three sessions under their belts, are by now thoroughly at ease with the form, and attack their scenes with gusto. Fava mostly gives them their head, occasionally suggesting a new piece of business aimed at highlighting a character's true nature.

"It's wonderful for them to work with such an expert," says their teacher Maureen Hole. "He's been brave enough to let them invent, and all their performance skills have come together."

In the evening the irrepressible Fava is at it again, playing a bit part in his own production. The show proves to be a triumphant vindication of his belief that the commedia dell'arte can be successfully adapted and updated for modern audiences, even while the archetypal characters are retained.

Into the original story involving Arlequino, Pantelone and the usual gang the company has skilfully woven plenty of modern material. The result - bawdy, anarchic, acrobatic and immensely funny - is a brilliant piece of ensemble work, and one greatly relished by a predominantly young audience.

Love is a Bug will be touring in Liverpool, London, Watford and Bournemouth during April and May. For information about linked education events phone 01865 723238 245781.

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