Berlusconi at Southwark Playhouse
“I am the Jesus Christ of politics,” sings Silvio Berlusconi (Sebastien Torkia) at the very beginning of the musical. Written by Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan, its premise is a fascinating and highly intriguing one: a musical entirely dedicated to the scandalous life of the Italian politician, and an expose of his sordid and corrupted world, as also told by the courageous women who got embroiled in it. Unfortunately, despite a talented cast and some entertaining, funny moments (and, thankfully, no fake Italian accents), just like the former Prime Minister, Berlusconi often fails to deliver on its own promises.
The story is set in 2012, during Berlusconi’s trial for tax fraud. However, throughout the musical, there are also some short time jumps back to 1947 when he was still living with his parents – without remaining in the past for too long, or long enough to understand how some of those jumps help progress the story. The lack of a clear narrative structure and strong plot thread holding all the pieces together is what arguably causes quite a few confused looks, especially for those who might not already know that young Berlusconi was, indeed, a singer on cruise ships. Overall, the musical consists of a series of songs that could easily be standalone pieces (some more memorable than others). There is also an attempt at meta by having Berlusconi work on an opera, but the idea is not fully and clearly developed.
It is hard to understand what the final goal is here: to finally let the women tell their side of the story? To explain how Berlusconi became a modern-day version of Emperor Tiberius in the first place? To make a universal remark on how power corrupts people, despite their mother’s best attempts at raising them right? How the most powerful and corrupt get away with it? It seems that it tries to do it all once: being a universal warning, whilst telling a very specific story through satire and parody. In the end, it doesn’t do either justice. It barely scrapes the surface, without delving deeply into the reasons for Berlusconi’s rise to power, and all the events that led to the trial.
The second part offers some of the most hilarious and powerful moments of the musical, including a bromance between a bare-chested Putin and Berlusconi, and one of the definite highlights: Bella’s (Natalie Kassanga) beautifully sung solo number, I Am a Smoking Gun. If laughter resounded throughout Italy and worldwide when news of the infamous Bunga Bunga parties broke, this piece serves as a reminder of all the young women whose lives were changed forever because of that. Not a laughing matter after all. The writers succeed in addressing a highly sensitive matter, by giving a voice to the young woman who found herself at the centre of a world-famous scandal, drowning in murky waters.
Torkia also deserves a special mention: despite bearing a greater resemblance to Sacha Baron Cohen than Silvio Berlusconi, he nails the latter’s cocky arrogance, his irreverent, defiant spirit, as well as his charisma and sleaziness.
If the fact that nobody can correctly pronounce the word “cavalier” is a bit of a disappointment, the logos of actual Italian media channels on the microphones are a very nice touch – and one of the few reminders, along with the Italian flags, that we are indeed in Italy.
As an Italian who experienced first-hand the chaotic, life-changing events of those turbulent years, protesting outside school against Berlusconi’s education cuts, this writer cannot help but feel somewhat dissatisfied. That being said, it was also an entertaining evening, filled with funny moments and beautifully sung pieces, that hopefully will encourage people to reflect on the devastating effects of corrupted power.
Image: Nick Rutter
Berlusconi is at Southwark Playhouse from 25th March until 29th April 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.