By Tom Pymer
She Loves Him, He Loves Her Not is the first play I have seen in Durham which experiments with the technique of commedia del arte. Commedia del arte is a form of comedy in which there are a few central stock characters, who are caricatured and exaggerated. She Loves Him, He Loves Her Not lives up to this, exhibiting much comic dialogue. In story terms, it’s pretty much your standard romantic comedy, with elements of fairy-tale thrown in. It was a nice story, certainly, with fun characters. It is true that elements of the ending were predictable, but by no means all of it, and besides, as mentioned above, the story is meant to focus on comedy rather than plot.
If She Loves Him, He Loves Her Not has one point in its favour, it is that it’s very funny. I found myself chuckling all the way through. It was one wisecrack or pun after another, some containing genuine philosophical insights which really just made it all the funnier. Mixed with the slapstick elements, it made for a highly amusing play. Indeed, to my mind, the audience did not laugh enough. There were a great many jokes which deserved more attention. Occasionally, a line was rushed with the result that the joke itself was lost or fell a little flat, but this was uncommon. Maybe to some tastes there would have been too many jokes, but I disagree. I think there were an excellent amount and that they were all very funny.
Another thing that must be highlighted was the acting ability. As previously mentioned, commedia del arte is supposed to be caricatured. This does not, however, mean that there cannot be good characterisation, and in this case there definitely was. Every single character had their own little comic element. It is impossible to pick any individual who did their part especially well, but I must say that I was fond and of Abbah Abbah’s Oratio and Hannah Newman’s Rosaletta. Unquestionably, however, the best scene was the one between Izzy Murat’s Smeraldina and Newman, who was taking a break from her usual character to play Smeraldina’s dead mother, which had an energy and dynamic like nothing else.
In addition to this, I enjoyed the audience interaction. This is a smaller point, but worth mentioning because it drew the audience in a lot more. From trying to sell us things to insulting us, the actors made good use of the audience at many unexpected points. The homely feel of the set furthered this sense of intimacy.
As previously mentioned, however, there were drawbacks. The principal thing was simply that the entire process was pantomime-esque. This was great in the parts of audience interaction, slapstick comedy and stock characters. But unfortunately, the fact that it was being performed in a gym meant that the scene changes were anything but swift, and because there wasn’t much in the way of a stage crew, it was impossible to be quite sure who was onstage to act and who was just moving tables and chairs. If I hadn’t been told it was scripted, I would have assumed it was improvised, and if so it would have made a truly exceptional improvisation. As it was, knowing that it was scripted did make it feel a little like the kind of play one might have put on with friends or young siblings for the amusement of other friends or family. It wasn’t as slick as some other plays I’ve seen.
But as one of my fellow audience-members observed, we weren’t expecting Broadway, and indeed it was very much a traditional commedia del arte. The performance was meant to be caricatured and funny, both of which it was. The script was good, the acting was good and I think it’s fair to say that the play achieved everything it set out to do.
‘She Loves Him, He Loves Her Not’ is being performed in Josephine Butler College on Sunday 25th February 2018.
Photograph: STAB Durham