[The following contains spoilers.]
Lorenzo Gioielli’s “Matthew 19:14” is rather like a golden coin that has been tossed into an unlucky wishing well. At past Fringes, I have found the small, very intimate studios at Greenside on Infirmary Street to be sites where powerful pieces of theatre can end up being shown to tiny audiences. Of course, it is always thrilling to be almost over the threshold of any play and virtually into the laps of the cast. But it is now normal for me to leave Greenside thinking, “How unfair! How careless! They should really try to share this with more people.”
“Matthew 19:14” has been around in one form or another since 2004 but this is its debut in English. A man (Francesco Martino) and a woman (Elisabetta Jane Rizzo) meet by chance in a bar. They immediately plunge into a disconcertingly deep and frank conversation. It is as airy as a fantasy that you might have when sitting alone on a café terrace, peeping at a woman who is also by herself and wistfully imagining the conversation that you might strike up with her. The feeling that this couple’s meeting is somehow unreal is intensified by the fact that nobody ever interrupts them, as their chat broadens into a dispute and then an altercation. The staff are evidently very laissez-faire at this bar. Incidentally, the time within the story corresponds with our own, with the woman being told that it is 12:45 when it actually is.
If the performers were British then this play would have to be a light opera, but since they are Italian there is enough music in their talk. Martino’s character is laconically Italian – calm, imperious, and polite down to the smoothest and most controlled brush of his fingertips. Rizzo’s is bitterly Italian and in a kind of haughtily despairing quake. Both performers thus live up to the space and they are like tigers up close. Sudden changes in lighting, as though a coded signal is being flashed and we cannot read it, add to the unease of the encounter.
We might be suspicious of this story for a long time. It is as if the disputants are unloading a large lorry before they have parked it, in hammering out questions of faith and justice before they know each other’s names or where they live. The woman is soon claiming to be married but we can see no wedding ring. His is on the right hand (this is never explained).
The story will be clarified in a succession of quick, very smart steps. Whether it accordingly seems smaller, in abandoning its previous philosophical freefall – or more powerful, in its newfound mafia viciousness – will come down to personal taste. The play felt altogether more familiar to me in its later stages. The model of an innocuous chance meeting that is really nothing of the sort is possibly a regular flavour within theatrical thrillers.
The man assumes the appearance of an angel who has been fortuitously blown into the woman’s path to save her from a crime, before reconfiguring as the traditional devil whose slyness is as smooth and venerable as the cellar’s best vintage. It is a tribute to Martino’s powers that he can slip so imperceptibly between the two. In the end, though, some of the shine comes off the man. He runs headlong into his ordained bullet merely, one might think, out of wounded pride. In this fashion, a story of unsettling mysteriousness is gradually shrunk down to more human proportions.