‘You can’t not be political. It’s like asking if I consider myself a human being.’
Oh, the things I would do for a story. I’m a sophisticated, man-of-the-theatrical-world; I have witnessed wonders and beheld all manner of trickery but seeing a storyteller use only their skill to form characters and their imagination to forge worlds is something that enchants my primitive soul. Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas is a monologue written by Dario Fo, this version is translated by Mario Pirovano, and it is embellished and performed, shared, gifted to us by Steve Gome with the direction of Wayne Pearn. This bardic supergroup presents storytelling with vitality and relevance as Steve Gome took the audience along on this epic adventure.
Dario Fo is a Nobel prize winning playwright who wrote Johan Padan as a response to the celebrations of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas. Columbus was an awful person who didn’t discover America but this isn’t the narrative that some people share; some people celebrate this genocidal zealot as noble explorer. Fo, a satirist and practitioner of agitprop theatre, reacted to this by telling the story of the important voyage through the working class voice of Johan Padan who witnesses first-hand the pride, ignorance, and cruelty that makes up the great man. The monologue is written, with space for improvisation, with energy and humour. Pirovano’s translation captures that same level of political vitriol told with a charming smile and occasional buffoonery; an actor’s trick to lessen the sting. These words are powerful and subversive.
Storytelling can be incredibly dangerous. This performance starts with Gome giving a short description of a storytelling technique where the teller tells for the people. This is a politically charged environment and the voice of the people is largely unheard so they react with satire and parody. Agitprop tales of pop-anarchy would bring more coins to the storyteller from a people that felt impotent against the powers that be. It is this context that shows the motivation for this monologue where great figures are toppled, Christianity is thrown to the figurative, and colonialism is rightly attacked. While all of that is there, in the very floorboards of the theatre, this isn’t really what it’s about.
It all starts on a ship. Gome enters with vitality and immediately sets the scene. Through mime and dialect he fills the empty stage with a whole crew and a spectacular scene onboard the ship. We are then in the space of the story. Over the next two hours we find out why Johan is on the ship and the amazing voyage that led to astounding encounters with the Indio where our hero becomes a shaman and a god, well, not a god as such and certainly not The God because the Inquisition knows all, but certainly something very powerful and god-like or unmentionable-like. Every character is fully realised in voice and mannerism. Occasionally Gome’s accent slipped but when it did it served only as a reminder that we were listening to a storyteller not a journalist. Each distinctive character was performed with commitment and generosity. Gome’s physicality bordered on athletic as he hurled himself into roles with gymnastic control. The story being told used every comedic trick from the highest of brows to the slappiest of sticks. This story teller worked hard for his well-earned coin. Johan Padan, as narrator, was extremely likeable and made a personal connection with every listener. Granted the space was intimate but Gome shared so much with the audience, making eye contact, responding to gestures from the audience, seemingly motivated by the audience and that connection to give us his all. Along with the physical, this performance requires an amazing mental agility as well. Of course, a two hour monologue is a fear of imagination but there is also the improvisation which requires extended concentration and wit. It wasn’t possible to tell scripted sections from improvised and the delivery was so natural that I couldn’t tell if anything was improvised or all of it was. I could see the mental energy crackling behind Gome’s eyes, as I said it was an intimate space, and his commitment and presence didn’t fail for the entire performance.
There seems to be a connection here between audience, performer, and other contributors. This connection goes all directions. The director has made the stage craft side of this all seem effortless, as if Johan had simply turned up at the theatre and started telling his story through clever staging choices. The lighting design worked with the performance perfectly to strengthen the performance and complement the action. As an example, the lighting was so smooth that I didn’t realise the artifice of going under the sea I just assumed it happened.
Through strong performance and highly skilled production we went through many environments including the ocean and the jungle and each seemed real. That’s the thing about storytelling, it can take us wherever the tale goes. We are all connected and you can feel the energy connect performer and audience. A story just needs a listener; not technology nor props, not costumes nor makeup. A good performer does all that for the audience. If you put this in a theatre space then we get an opportunity to see theatre at its purest and most energised. I would do anything for a story and this is one of the best stories I’ve seen.