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Daily Review: Johan Padan & the Discovery of the Americas

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See article in its original context here by Andrew Fuhrmann for Daily Review.


The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a veteran of the conquest of Aztec Mexico, was no doubt sincere when he praised Cortés more for spreading the Catholic faith than winning new riches for Spain.

It was the age of maximum strength for Catholicism, a time of ruthless intolerance, of the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. According to Díaz’s, whenever Cortés wasn’t bartering for gold, he was spreading the good news of Jesus Christ — either by remonstrance or the sword.

But not every Catholic was such a zealot.

In Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas, Italian Nobel Prize-winning writer Dario Fo satirises Catholic orthodoxy by pointing up its near resemblance in this age of discovery to a religion of death.

It’s a one-man show about a young Italian pantologist — whose own faith is sketchy at best – dodging fanaticism and persecution in both Europe and the New World, from Venice to Florida.

Forced to join the crew of Christopher Columbus on his fourth and final voyage to the Americas, Johan becomes enamoured of the region’s gentle and generous indigenous peoples – even the cannibals. This fondness is matched by his disgust at the sanguinary behaviour of his fellow Christians. Eventually, one lucky break after another, he finds himself leading a large tribe of natives and teaching them his own version of the Christian doctrine, along with how to make fireworks and break a stallion by its testes.

Johan is an irreverent jester, and the humour is consistently bawdy, but also hearty and vigorous: rude in all senses of the word. For example, he’s endlessly fascinated by the nakedness of the natives, especially the women, their tits and buttocks to lucky wind. And still, there’s something delicate in performer Steve Gome’s manner, with his prancing, skipping movements across the stage and the earnestness in his vagrant Italian accent, which points always to Johan’s sensitivity and essential goodness.

The story of Johan and his tribe is introduced in a prologue as an example of the sort of improvised tall tale popular in northern Italy, but it’s also an inspired spoof on the legend of Prester John and his fantastic kingdom in the Orient, full of monsters, marvels and riches: an Earthly Paradise.

The translation by Mario Pirovano – who performed the play at the 2003 Melbourne Arts Festival – has a swinging, loping sort of rhythm with plenty of room for horsing about. Here Gome excels. With director Wayne Pearn of Hoy Polloy, he generates an immediate sense of inclusion and intimacy. Having previously performed this long monologue back in 2013, he is confident, relaxed and attentive to the details of Johan’s storytelling technique.

It’s a marvellous performance. Gome is full of engaging little affectations and manifests something of an ancient bardic delight in remembering and telling. In what is a packed couple of weeks of theatre in Melbourne, this little gem is not to be missed


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