Decameron Nights by Boccacio
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Decameron Nights: Italian Indelicacies Remixed from Boccacio by Robin Brooks. BBC Radio 3, 7-14 Dec. 2014. Dir. Jonquil Panting. Perf. Samuel Barnett, Tim McInnerny, Sam Dale. Now available on BBCiPlayer

Introduced by Terry Jones, Monty Python member and expert on medieval literature, Decameron Nights was a series of ten fifteen-minute dramas broadcast over ten nights in The Essay slot on Radio 3, and collected into two seventy-five-minute sessions on the Drama on 3 slot.

The mood for each playlet was set by the announcers, who invited listeners to sample a series of tasty delicacies that were collected into a "selection-box" each Sunday. The food analogy was an appropriate one for two reasons: first, adapter Brooks and director Jonquil Panting transformed Boccacio's tales (originally there were one hundred of them; hence the title The Decameron) into wonderfully humorous pieces combining high and popular cultural elements, suitable for every type of listener. "Federigo and His Falcon," a story of undying love and poverty, was transformed into an energetic satire of high and low cultures, with the eponymous hero (John Finnemore) finding himself unable to provide his falcon as a present for the ailing Niccolo (Adam Thomas Wright), as he had already killed and plucked it as a dinner delicacy for Niccolo's mother Monna (Ingrid Oliver). "How Elena Blew Hot and Cold" was a trickster's tale, the antecedent of the commedia dell'arte, in which the eponymous heroine (Lydia Leonard) found that her lover (Cyril Niri) turned out to be cleverer than she anticipated. "How to Get it Off Your Chest" was aptly described by Terry Jones as a ripping yarn, that was not only extremely funny, but had its origins in the fabliau tradition. Anyone, from the student of European literature to the lover of good stories well told, could sit back and enjoy the joyous humour of the tales, while at the same time realizing that they provided the inspiration for future generations of authors, including Shakespeare.

Yet the food metaphor also worked at a baser, yet extremely funny level, as Panting exploited Boccacio's humour for all it was worth. There were several eating sequences running throughout the ten playlets (including "Federigo and his Falcon" and "Kind Hearts and Bayonets," a morality-tale of avarice involving Mithuridanes (Samuel Barnett), a young and ambitious hostelry-owner, and his elderly neighbour Nathan (Sam Dale)). "The Sweetest Young Man in Perugia" established a bawdy connection between food and sex, as the Madam (Hannah Genesius) referred explicitly to the pleasures awaiting frustrated young wife Pandara (Jane Slavin), whom she likened to a box of chocolates. Each one was worth sampling: "just suck it and see." Pandara's husband Pietro (Tim McInnerny) continued the metaphor, referring to the chocolates the young lady had eaten, including "milk, dark, fudge and Turkish delight." Yet Pietro got his revenge on his wife as he discovered his wife's latest lover Masetto (Monty d’Inverno) and invited him to dinner, where he wanted to "arrange things to your [i.e. his own] satisfaction." This not only included eating food, but arranging a ménage à trois where Masetto could be shared by both husband and wife.

The playlets proved beyond doubt that in Boccacio's writing there was no real distinction between high and low cultures, bawdy and polite humour. Such distinctions, if they existed, were only imposed two or three centuries later as a result of the development of print cultures. In oral cultures, accustomed to storytelling, there was no need to recognize them. Robin Brooks's remixes showed how this worked in practice, by combining poetic flights of fancy with earthy language: "How to Get it Off Your Chest," for instance, had four protagonists speaking to one other in broad Northern English accents, with the colloquial greeting "Aw' right?" They subsequently described the sexual act in broad terms as "a quick one," or "a slow one." Accustomed to eating hearty breakfasts of "pudding noir," one character had apparently become so angry that he had "gone right off sausage." Each sequence in the playlets was linked by different variations on two popular tunes from the past: George Formby's "When I'm Cleaning Windows," and Irving Berlin's romantic ballad "What'll I Do?" Yet there was little or no romance in any of the stories; the song was either whistled, or sung in falsetto, or translated into Italian.

In this world where no cultural distinctions existed, Panting showed that our expectations of social, gender and political differences were bound to be frustrated. Wives and husbands accepted infidelity as a way of life; bourgeois women disguised themselves as servants; well-to-do men turned out to be paupers. Yet perhaps this is inevitable in a comic universe in which happy endings are either contrived, or turn out to be transient, at best. Even though husbands and wives might be restored to one another, there is no guarantee that their marriages will last.

But that really doesn't matter for much in Boccacio's world. There might be serious moral and social issues discussed in his tales, but the language and situations are so joyous that we might not necessarily pay too much heed to them. With a combination of ingenious sound-effects (the regular sound of animal noises- horses, donkeys, chickens, etc.), emphasizing the down-to-earth nature of the tales, and deliberately fast-paced narratives, Panting brought the tales right up to date, while reminding us of their author's genius. Definitely worth a listen.