Sex Please, We’re Italian
July 04, 1991 - August 24, 1991 | The Young Vic
In 1976, long before “Duet for One” was to make him internationally famous, Tom Kempinski began a comic novel about an Italian hospital porter in New York who joined the fan club of a famous actress. Deciding that the club was a front for sexual adventures with her, the porter set about trying to meet and sleep with her. Not surprisingly perhaps, Kempinski progressed no further. The plot, however, kept gnawing at him, and by the mid eighties he decided to have another go. But this time it would be a play – Kempinski knows where his strenghts lie. “There was a desire to do it precicely because it was funny yet, as I pulled to together, it became another story”. As the writing progressed, it occured to Kempinski that, almost despite himself, he was creating a farce. “The keeping of secrets, the covering up of unacceptable truths which is the essence of a farce, proved to be an important element of the play. As these characters and their various deceits started to take shape and grow, so I had to invent others to keep it going. I asked everyone who came round how to get out of tight corners as the plot became increasingly convoluted.” Once the play was completed, Kempinski’s Italian agent told him it was impossible to perform the play – it would spark off a riot in Italy. “It was not my intention to attack or ridicule Italian village life, nor to shock or to hurt. I have written a play as I perceived small village life to be. It could have been England except that sexual misdemeanour does not shock, and people here are not prone to panic or large gestures which are vital to farce. I wanted to create a comic situation. There is rebellion in me and that may be sensed, but I set out to write a well structured play. It gave me a great deal of pleasure after years of introspective writing.”
Kempinski’s pleasure of writing the play didn’t transform well once the play opened at the Young Vic to disastrous reviews. Of the opening, the New York Times wrote, “Distinguished artistic director, David Thacker, has come together with the actress Helen Mirren and the “Duet for One” playwright Tom Kempinski to provide one of the most spectacularly unfunny evenings the London theater has seen in decades. This is a unfortunate in that the play they are doing is intended as a farce. “Sex Please, We’re Italian” has one of those nudging titles that would suggest that Kempinski is hoping to make a late-life entry into the Ray Cooney college of mild sexual innuendo and complex plot machinery, without the vaguest idea of how to do it. As a result, we have an assortment of increasingly unhappy character actors led by Mirren roaming the stage in desperate search of something to do or some way of preventing the audience from demanding their money back. From a first reading of this script, it should have been clear that not only was there no play here but that Kempinski has not the faintest notion of the ground rules of farce. Vague allegations of sexual goings-on in a convent are not of themselves hilarious, nor does it help to have the bishop of Naples standing around at the side of the set waiting, like the rest of us, for something funny to happen. It doesn’t”.
Helen Mirren recalled this production as “traumatic” in an interview with the Independent several years later: “The last play I was in was so traumatic I can’t think any more. It was Sex Please, We’re Italian at the Young Vic, three years ago. We all thought it was brilliant, the try-out audiences loved it, cheering like mad at the curtain – then came the first night, and it was a slaughterhouse. The critics massacred us. The theatre emptied, just like that. Terrifying.”