LAKE MAGGIORE, ITALY – February 2004
The invitation to perform in Lombardy came entirely by surprise. I received an e-mail explaining that as Ireland had taken over the Presidency of the European Union for six months, the Irish government was keen to promote Irish culture across the continent. To this end, would I care to play Wilde at a European Commission Joint Research Centre on the shores of Lake Maggiore? It employed almost 900 scientists of many nationalities and was known locally as EURATOM. This was a reference to its status as the site of several nuclear reactors that were in the process of being decommissioned.
Having arrived at Ryanair’s interpretation of ‘Milan’ Airport – which turned out to be a city called Bergamo on the road to Verona – I took a taxi for the 45 miles to the small town of Angera on Lake Maggiore. The next morning, I sat outside a café in the winter sunshine and looked across the windless blue lake to a village on the opposite shore called Arona. In June 1875, Oscar Wilde had stayed in Arona; he wrote a poem there called ‘Graffitti D’Italia’ and described it as ‘a beautiful spot’. He was right.
My contact, a pleasant Irish woman called Karen, arrived to escort me to lunch at the Research Centre at Ispria a few miles up the coast. It took over forty minutes to negotiate the razor-wired entrance security, but eventually we sat down to eat in a large cafeteria. A Babel of languages rose from the roughly three hundred scientists downing pasta around us. Karen glanced at them thoughtfully, then suggested that it would be a good advert for tonight’s show if I were to give an impromptu excerpt in the cafeteria.
Accordingly, I rose and began to boom out the passage about Oscar’s visit to America. The hubbub subsided as a sea of curious faces swivelled my way; I held them for five minutes before the food won; I sat down to a trickle of clapping.
Karen: “You know, this must be the first time that Oscar Wilde has ever been performed in a nuclear reactor.”
In the early evening, Karen drove me up into the hills behind Ispria to the Oratorio (a sort of church hall) venue in the village of Cadrezzate. On the way, she pointed out the birthplace of the Italian writer Dario Fo, best known for his play ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’.
There was an expectant buzz around the Oratorio when we arrived. The committee was made up entirely of Irish EURATOM employees except for a very friendly but non English-speaking priest who hovered on the sidelines. When the committee unveiled fifty bottles of Jameson whisky and four bottles of lemonade, (the interval refreshments for the estimated 150 audience), the priest gave them an uneasy smile. When Karen mentioned that the local villagers were also on their way, I muttered: “With pitchforks?”
Curtain up was timed for 9pm. I asked Karen what she estimated would be the genuine time.
“If the Germans were organising this, it would start at 8 55. With the Irish, it’ll be more like 9 30.”
In fact, the actual start time was only ten minutes late. The show itself went rather well with a lot of laughter. Karen met me at the interval before the second half question and answer session. She said that the audience reaction had been really good, except from some Bulgarians who couldn’t follow the speed of the language.
I could tell from the rising racket from the hall that the interval refreshments were going down remarkably well and there seemed to be some reluctance to restart the show. When I finally returned to the stage, a sizeable proportion of the audience remained standing at the refreshment table, and the Q and A section proceeded to an accompaniment of clinking bottles. The ensuing discussion was lively.
Somehow I got myself into a terrible tangle over the rights and wrongs of the British Empire, the last topic I wished to go anywhere near under the circumstances. But I did get an appreciative laugh from the Irish ex-pats when I commented that: “Oscar Wilde was an Irish patriot but he preferred to be patriotic from a distance.”
In a bubble of post-show bonhomie, the committee took me to a Cadrezzate restaurant where horse was touted as the main local dish. Karen asked me in mid-mouthful whether the meat had been roasted to my liking.
“I don’t know. I’ve never actually cooked a horse before.”
The talk shifted to Italian regionalism. Karen: “It’s a real problem. The Milanese feel more affinity to Dublin than they do with Sicily.”
Also, I discovered that in the usual Irish way they had renamed the local area. Instead of being known as Lake Maggiore, it was now Lake Maggie O’Reilly.
Returning to Angera, I went up to the hotel bedroom and watched some Italian TV. One of the programmes was about Milanese high fashion and its jet-set entourage, a crowd with which I have never had the slightest empathy. To ransack one of Oscar’s epigrams, they are the unbearable in full pursuit of the unwearable.
The evening’s viewing concluded with a show in which housewives combined stripping with playing nude snooker.
At noon next day, I waited by the hotel for the taxi to Bergamo airport. I was due to check in at 2pm for the 3pm flight to London.
By 12 45pm I was getting worried – the airport was 45 miles away. I phoned Karen to find out what was happening. She arrived at the hotel at 1 15pm and said that she thought the taxi had been booked but couldn’t be sure. She went off to check and also to phone Ryanair to tell them I was on my way.
“They’ll not leave without you, I’m sure.”
Really? It seemed that Irish punctuality was combining with Italian organisation and things were looking decidedly dicey.
Then the taxi arrived: I hurled my bags in, gave a wave to Karen, and we were off. The time was 2 02pm – there was not a hope of reaching the airport by 3pm.
At first we were held up by traffic in the country roads round Angera, then we reached the motorway and the driver went mad. At an average speed of 110mph, we hurtled across northern Italy, the car horn blaring at anything that dared to impede the fast lane. Milan to the left of us, Monza to the right of us, Bergamo in front of us – they all flashed past. After the first five minutes, I just gave up hope of survival and sat back, relaxing in the knowledge of certain death in a fireball of exploding metal. It was deeply exhilarating.
At 2 58pm, we swerved onto the forecourt of the terminal building. I had no more time than to gabble two words of thanks to the greatest driver I’d ever travelled with, before grabbing my bag and rushing into the airport. An official smiled and waved me on as I ran through the customs, ticket, security, and passport checks without stopping. Outside, the plane was waiting on the tarmac and I climbed up the boarding steps. Unbelievably I’d made it.
It may have been Irish punctuality and Italian organisation that had created the problem, but it was Irish cool and Italian driving that solved it.
The Italian Alps from the plane