Looking for Alibrandi
Writer: Vidya Rajan
Director: Stephen Nicolazzo
Belvoir Steet Theatre
October 1 – November 6, 2022
Adapted by Vidya Rajan and Stephen Nicolazzo from Melina Marchetta’s much-loved ’90s novel, Looking for Alibrandi is a refreshing, funny, painful and invigorating revisiting of the migratory encounter with a dominant culture. A warm-hearted and rich representation of the Italian experience in Australia, it speaks to the conflict between valued family traditions, the desire to find acceptance and the need for self-fulfilment.
Both the burden and the joy of inherited family rituals is evoked by the stage setting (set and costume design, Kate Davis). Boxes of ripe tomatoes crowd around the limits of the stage, a tomato strainer and a gallon drum are a focus point for stage action, and luscious red curtains serve as a backdrop. While the making of passata is an Alibrandi family summer ritual carried out by grandmother, daughter and not so enthusiastically this time, by 18-year-old granddaughter, Josie – about to enter on her HSC year – it could be a joyous storing up of the warmth of summer for future meals.
However, as the two older women go about the well-known steps in making passata they chatter volubly in both languages and there is obvious tension between them. Nonna (Jennifer Vuletic) is judgemental and her daughter, Christina (Lucia Mastrantone) patient and conciliatory, and it is apparent that this mode of interchange characterises their everyday relationship. It is a relief when granddaughter Josie (Chanella Macri) asks “Why do all this, when you could buy a bottle at Woolworths?”, her expression telling us she knows her comment will bring the two women together.
Chanella Macri as Josie is perfect in her portrayal of a socially and sexually uncertain but intellectually confident young woman seeking, as she says, “emancipation”. She’d like to escape “being Italian” – the defining emotional overtness expressed in a shiny, tomato red dress with tulle overlay and puffy sleeves to which she’s assigned by Nonna and Christina – and she’s fully aware that a high score in the UMAT – its uniform expectations expressed through the baggy school dress – offers access to, if not acceptance, into the Anglo establishment. She’d like to be her own, and not an imposed shape.
Both the reappearance of her father, Michael (Ashley Lyons), a successful lawyer, and her conflicted relationship with non-Italian boyfriend Jacobe (an engaging John Marc Desengano) help her find her own path. Macri is completely convincing in her mixed reaction to Michael – when a father who turns up after the struggle of child-rearing is in the past we need to ask who is needy here – and her puzzlement that Jacobe can be so completely sure of who he wants to be.
However, Josie’s ultimate emancipation is dependent upon the liberation of her Nonna from a brutal past relationship and Christina’s discovery of her own potential, just as Nonna and Christina’s liberation is dependent upon Josie’s wisdom in questioning the hold of the past. It is with a sense of thankfulness that we see the family restored to unity – Josie embracing her place in the traditional labour of the preparation of food and all that this signifies.
Mastrantone gives a lovely performance as Josie’s courageous and loving mother and demonstrates amazing versatility by playing the role of Josie’s up-beat and funny friend, Sera. Her friend’s rapid change of ambition promoted by the support of the Anglo John Barton (Hannah Monson) and Josie’s initial disbelief in the insouciant Sera’s ability to achieve unpacks another layer of migrant experience.
A favourite moment in the lovingly written and directed Looking for Alibrandi is an imagined exchange between a Josie of the future – now a proven success from a migrant background – and Margaret Throsby, contemporary celebrity interviewer.