In the recent history of set and costume design, from lavish, historically faithful productions to the broken-down landscapes of the avant-garde, Raimonda Gaetani makes a contribution that is rightly recognised as singular.
She is best known for her involvement in a long and fruitful dialogue between English and Italian theatre, in which some of the greatest post-war English stage actors appeared in Neapolitan plays with Italian directors. She worked with Franco Zeffirelli (“He had a clear vision of what he wanted to give to people”) on his 1973 production of Saturday, Sunday, Monday by de Filippo, starring Sir Laurence Olivier (“Larry was adorable”) and Joan Plowright. And she brought another of de Filippo’s plays, Filumena, to the stage, again in collaboration with Zeffirelli.
In 2003, she received the Olivier Award for best costumes of the year for Absolutely, Perhaps, a Pirandello play starring Joan Plowright, directed by Franco Zeffirelli.
She is being recognised for her contribution to English theatre in a retrospective exhibition at the Italian Cultural Institute in Belgravia.
Although Gaetani’s personal achievements go far beyond the English stage, having had a long and varied career in opera, theatre and film, she will always be most vividly associated with that extraordinary moment of cultural synthesis, that fusion of English acting talent and Neapolitan style.
She is a Neapolitan (“everything I do is from Naples”, she tells me) and still spends much of the year on the Amalfi coast.
Last summer, I stayed in Raito, one of the little villages that studs the coastline of the Amalfi coast. My host was Eva Cantarella, an impossibly glamorous Italian academic and authority on the Ancient world. Raimonda knows her (“she is the most interesting and free kind of intellectual”).
Although much of the Amalfi coast has changed out of all recognition by tourism (as in Positano’s novel, Ibiza-style bar culture), there is still much that is as crystalline, as wholly perfect, as it ever was: “There are some places that are what they were, little steps down to the sea and prickly pears above the cliffs.”
It is often said that Naples retains a pre-Christian ethos, in which there is no tension between the sacred and the profane. Raimonda corrects me: “This is what one grabs at the first moment, but Naples is not at all ignorant or gay.”
“Naples is a town of the sea, and as such has received culture and freedoms through the ages.”
“It has a whole literature of its own, its own poetry, songs and music. It has its own voice in Italian culture which is basically different from Roma and Firenze, though they are glorious too. Some call Neapolitan a dialect; it is a language.”
And that was essentially Raimonda’s challenge in her work for the English stage: De Filippo’s plays, for example, present major difficulties in translation – family kitchen sink dramas which trade on the Neapolitan language of gesture and mime as much as they do in words. Raimonda came up with an innovative solution: “Saturday, Sunday, Monday is structured around the three days it takes to cook the ragù for Sunday dinner.”
“I pretended that the ragù really had to be cooked on stage. The whole theatre smelled of ragù. Joan Plowright was fantastic – she got the timing just right. Because it was an olfactory experience, when it was finished, everyone went out under the stars hungry like crazy.”
“I go and see reality. For Filumena, I was travelling around Naples in the Torre del Greco. From the railway, I saw a house with some stained glasses and a palm tree. I said to myself: this must be the house that Filumena lived in. I photographed it.”
“Reality can be much more rich and fun than any creation.”
And Raimonda’s memories and stories show some truth in that assertion: “When I dressed Laurence Olivier, I went to a famous tailor in Naples called Rubinacci and I brought back a jacket for him.
“The dresser at the Old Vic had some ties and jackets ready, but I told him: I came from Naples to dress Laurence as a Neapolitan, not as an English gentleman.”
She laces these stories with a tone of melancholy: “All magnificence seems to be disappearing. Culture has no voice in Italy. Tourism devours every story.”
But she still retains faith in the enduring value of history, of things, of the capacity of art to redeem the maimed present. She describes a visit to the ancient ruins of Paestum, where are preserved intact the Roman temples to Venus and Minerva: “I went to Paestum with Francois Jacob [winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1965].”
“There were ravens there. Ravens have a very long life. They must have a very long memory. It could only have been five generations of ravens since ancient times.
“The ravens flew to the ground where the Romans made sacrifices.”
“Great things refuse to die.”