San Domino is a new musical that tells the potent and moving story of the brutal oppression and imprisonment of gay men under Mussolini’s fascist Italy.
We follow a community of gay men in Catania who socialise in a cafe in the late 1930s. They are rounded up by the chief of police and transported to San Domino, where they are locked away from society for five years. From their place of incarceration, their friendships, romances and rivalries continue, whilst their numbers steadily, inexorably dwindle…
San Domino thematically recalls Martin Sherman’s Bent, though the story has been thoroughly researched and represents distinctly Italian fascism. Extreme right politics and the Roman Catholic Church have always been, and remain, inextricably linked, the one feeding off and promoting the other: with the demonization and dehumanisation of gay citizenry one of its hallmarks. We mention this because San Domino is neatly bookmarked by a group of contemporary gay Italians travelling to San Domino, facing the same bigotry their predecessors encountered in the 1930s. In terms of LGBT rights, Italy lags behind in Europe, dragged down by the power of the Church, and San Domino offers a voice of solidarity to gay Italian citizens who still have no legal rights. San Domino is a story that needs to be heard.
A satisfying aspect of the production is that the performers double up as musicians, picking up a wide variety of instruments, and the flavour of the music is unmistakably Italian. The songs, and the singing voices of the cast, are major strengths, and numbers such as One Pair of Eyes and Letters from Home are sure to send shivers down the spine. Less satisfactorily, the quality of the acting doesn’t live up to the success of the musical elements, and many of the cast need to work on internalising emotion.
That said, there are some very good performances on show. Matthew Hendrickson is excellent as Carlo, the lawyer who becomes a spokesperson for the prisoners. He gives a wholly credible performance of dignity and honour, and Carlo is a character we became very fond of. His later relationship with Claudio (Mike Christie) is sweetly played (if unclearly signposted in the book), and the scenes between the two exude warmth. Samuel Valentine is also excellent as Franco, a young straight man who is unwittingly found guilty by association. He injects a lot of humour into the show, and his relationship with Lucia (Thea Jo Wolfe) evolves beautifully.
There is a lot going on in San Domino, and the production is something of an uncut diamond. It’s excellent in concept, and in parts of its execution: but it’s also unpolished and raw. There are too many characters, and the baking hot studio of the Arcola isn’t big enough to contain its ambitions. With so many bodies on stage, it’s impossible to see everything that’s going on, rendering coherent direction and avoiding clutter a near-impossibility (though Matthew Gould rises to the challenge and almost succeeds). Despite the large cast, the actors are still required to double up parts, which means whenever one character is killed off, the same actor is resurrected in a new role. Theatre is artifice, yes: but that’s a big ask of any audience, and the same actor dying twice in one show becomes unintentionally funny.
With some more focus in the book, and a paring down of overtly on-the-nose expositional dialogue, San Domino has the potential to be a very good show indeed. In its current condition, it’s definitely worth a look – there are haunting and brilliant moments; but the nagging feeling is that with such a great concept and strong and important story, the themes would hit home more powerfully, and the original songs would resonate louder in a tighter, two-hour production, following the fates of fewer characters.