Sicily. A mix of ancient and modern

It was twenty years ago that I first set foot in Sicily. I had passed the auditions and managed to get into the School of Classic Theatre which is in Syracuse. My idea of what Ortygia might be like was a bit far-fetched: people had told me that it was like a little island joined to the city by a bridge which, for some reason, I had pictured as a wooden drawbridge. Young and defenceless, with a rather bizarre imagination, I was convinced the place was going to be lush and green, a kind of savanna landscape complete with monkeys and baobab trees. The reality was much more exciting.

Syracuse Sicily
The Greek Theatre in Syracuse. Photo by Simona @Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

I started wandering round the baroque buildings and historical landmarks, enjoying these echoes of the ancient, sophisticated society that inspired them, and digging deep for memories of the myths this civilization produced. Myths which, as you know, responded to man’s need to control the uncontrollable aspects of nature — thus a natural spring, emerging near the sea, became a nymph that managed to escape the clutches of an over-insistent god. And that nymph was there, in front of me, living in peace.

I swam in the sea nearby and was amazed at the cold water that came up from underneath. I thought of the story of Arethusa which is a lovely metaphor for the way lovers each have to change before they can become a couple.

Acting in the Greek Theatre of Syracuse was an incredible experience. The performance would start while it was still light, so the actors could see every single person making up the audience however many people there were — they just had to look at them. Thus the audience become people, not just an anonymous mass sitting in the shadows of an auditorium. Those performances in Syracuse were an amazing emotional and sensory experience for every one of us.

Unfortunately it was all destined to come to an end. I started work with a company in Genoa and only went back to Sicily on a couple of rare occasions. I acted a couple of times in the amazing Segesta and visited the Doric temple on top of the hill where Aphrodite’s beloved doves still seemed to fly. I went to Palermo on tour and put on four kilos in just one week, the food was so irresistibly delicious.

Then Sicily made a comeback in my life. After fifteen years’ working in the theatre, I decided to direct my creative energies elsewhere and had started writing. My first novel Mozart’s Sister had been published and I had started work on the second. I also wrote scripts for various Italian television programmes. One day, I was asked to write for a new series set in an imaginary town on the coast of Sicily.

The series went on television and the viewing figures as well as the critical response were more than satisfactory but, sadly, the whole thing stalled as a result of financial and bureaucratic problems and power games, and blame attributed to anything and everything else — the kind of situation which is only too familiar to Italy. As I write, we do not yet know whether there will be another series or not — we are all hoping in a last-minute miracle. If the miracle doesn’t happen it will be a sad ending for the hundreds of people who will lose their jobs, and also for the stories that have been written so far. The narrative strands in series like this one last for months, years, and even decades, just like in real life.

Whatever happens, however, I am sure that it will not signal the end of my love-affair with Sicily. The relationship might have to undergo some changes — just like it did for Arethusa.