Farewell to the Messina director Walter Manfrè. His “theatre of the person” remains a brilliant formula


By John

I don't know how much Italian actors and newspapers will pay homage to Walter Manfrè, director and leading actor, died at the age of 75 on Friday evening in Cefalù, where he was hospitalized for the degeneration of a blood disease that had persecuted him since he was 40 years old. Yet he was one of the greatest and most innovative men of Italian theatre with shows that made history, but little by little were partially forgotten, in favor of those who imitated his way of creating spectator involvement (without gratitude to the “progenitor”), sometimes well, more often badly.

I am not blind to the friendship – which began in the 1960s – and the common citizenship (Manfrè was born in Messina on 27 September 1948), if anything it comforts me to have followed his evolution in directing up to his “Theatre of the Person” ( the happy definition was by the Milanese critic Ugo Ronfani), who had brought him success due to his originality of intent and achievements.

In what is a journey down memory lane, I would like to start with «The Journey», perhaps the least known and least represented (also because it takes place on a real train) of the seven shows that make up the Teatro della persona. It was 2002 and I wrote: «The place is a carriage “parked” in the Corsico station, just outside Milan. Six spectators per compartment engaged in the one-hour journey. The noises of the train, the stationmaster's whistle are realistic, but in reality you don't move. They are the characters, the situations that alternate in our compartment, at a rate of ten minutes each. It's like continually opening a window into other people's lives, into the desperation and requests for help that surround us, often silent. The spectator-traveler watches, perhaps surprised at finding himself inside the show or involved in events that affect him (in the physical sense of the word) without however finding the strength to intervene. Is it really indifference (if not annoyance) that prevails or perhaps, and I think this is the point, are we all at least a little desperate and in need of help? In short, even if the characters tell of extreme situations, in some way they could be the symbol of an existential malaise common to all.”

It was, far from a real stage, the possibility of coming into contact with the most diverse people without abandoning one's egocentrism. At the same time, the psychological intensity, and, in case one escaped indifference, the inability to interact – there was in any case a script – if instead the emotion brought the spectator back to his primitive humanity, created a strong descent into his own interiority , with feelings ranging from empathy to hatred, from understanding to antipathy.
It was unlikely to leave these shows the same as you entered. Especially in «The confession», perhaps the best known, and then «The dinner», «Visit to relatives», «The vice of heaven», «The ceremony» and «The human voices», which went around the world . Always with direct contact between actor and spectator, sometimes even a single one.

Manfrè commissioned the texts from the most important Italian playwrights of the time: Giuseppe Manfridi above all, and then, among others, Edoardo Erba, Rocco D'Onghia, Pia Fontana. Walter had started as an actor in the theater-less Messina of the late 1960s. He had worked with many (even with Nino Frassica, for example), a lot with Massimo Mòllica (he often acted “handsome”), then he had the satisfaction of having his name in the company on the occasion of the inaugural show of the Teatro in Fiera on 8 October 1977 , «Merli e Malvizzi», written by Biagio Belfiore and directed by Andrea Camilleri. He could have continued a good career as an actor and had worked with important directors, but for him the text was no longer something to be recited, but rather to be penetrated and perhaps desecrated.

I remember among his first directions in Messina a «Cavalleria rusticana», in which I criticized him right from the title of my review: «But Verga was a realist». Something we discussed for years, even when, more than convinced that he was right, I had raised the white flag. Another divisive topic were the stage blinds, which, in my opinion, he then resorted to too often as a directorial expedient. And here, perhaps, I was right.

Soon his activity as a director experienced the success it deserved. Actors such as Paola Borboni, Pupella Maggio, Raf Vallone, Nando Gazzolo, Ottavia Piccolo, Paola Pitagora, Giuseppe Pambieri, Giancarlo Giannini, Carlo Delle Piane, Sergio Rubini, Jean Sorel, Moni Ovadia and many others acted under his direction. Then he was also artistic director of “Catonateatro” (from 1989 to 2014), in Calabria, and of the Messina Theater Authority in the 2004-2005 season.

Outside of any clique of power – those due to which the theater is dramatic not by definition but due to chronic organizational and economic shortcomings – he returned to Sicily, settling in Comiso where he founded the International Theater Centrewhich he directed, continuing to create shows, the last of which, the «Sacred Drama», with Mascia Musy, Luca Biagini and Graziano Piazza, will be staged in Vittoria on Good Friday.

He preferred to avoid Messina. He explained it this way to his daughter Serena in an interview published by the newspaper “Sicilians”: «One place where I would not have stopped is Messina: my hometown that I loved viscerally without being reciprocated and that I limited myself to scrutinizing, being around it without almost no more entering it. With the exception of my stint as artistic director at the Vittorio Emanuele, I have always preferred to maintain a minimum distance and my experience at the “Catonateatro” proves this. From the opposite bank I looked at Messina without it being able to hurt me.”

Now he will return for the funeral: after all this is also a theatrical conclusion. Manfrè leaves behind three children: in addition to Serena, Alice and Manuel, the latter had by his second wife Antonella Nieri with whom he had become very close in recent months. The funeral will take place tomorrow, at 3pm, in the church of Santa Maria della Consolata (Don Orione).