Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron has achieved new resonance in the last couple of years. Written shortly after the Black Death swept across Europe in the mid-14th century, the frame narrative revolves around a bubbled group of ten people taking shelter from the deadly plague in a secluded villa outside Florence. No booster jabs for them. To pass the time they tell each other tales – one hundred of them across ten days; evidently the period of self-isolation hasn’t changed much in the last 700 years. The stories cover a whole gamut of styles and genres and range from the philosophical to the bawdy; together they paint a comprehensive picture of life at the time.
Decameron Nights is a two part selection of just ten of the tales available as radio plays/podcasts via BBC Sounds. Badged as “Italian Indelicacies Remixed from Boccaccio”, Robin Brooks’s modern sounding adaptations are introduced by the late Terry Jones who evidently demonstrates a great fondness of, not to mention knowledge about, this seminal work of medieval literature. Each of the stories takes up about fifteen minutes so perfect for a coffee break. But, following the spirit of the original, I engaged with all ten in a single day. On reflection this was probably a mistake as these are pieces which should be savoured and reflected on rather than sped through; inevitably some have more going for them than others.
There are a number of universal and still contemporary themes which run throughout such as Boccaccio’s jaundiced view of the hypocrisy and corruption of the moral leaders (the church) of the time. While they may not exactly be having lockdown parties there is a clear sense of a “do as I say, not as I do” culture. For instance, the story A Job For The Boys reveals just how steeped in sins of the flesh nuns could be. The most prominent theme, however, revolves around the relationships between men and women particularly their propensity to manipulate each other. How Elena Blew Hot And Cold and The Wager are both cautionary tales about relationships and How To Get It Off Your Chest is a full blown sex farce including adulterous liaisons and disgruntled partners. My personal favourites were Federigo And His Falcon and Love Lies Sleeping both of which have twists which are worthy of Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected.
Apart from Jones doing the linking material, there’s a roster of respected voice performers who lend their talents to the proceedings. John Finnemore, Cyril Nri, Jude Akuwudike, Samuel Barnett, Tim McInnerney, Neil Pearson and the late Paul Ritter join a rep company which has great fun in retelling these stories which have inspired Shakespeare, Moliere and Caryl Churchill to mention just three respected dramatists. One of the jolliest aspects, and perhaps a bit of a Pythonesque nod to Terry Jones in their bizarreness, is the linking music. This centres on the lute playing of Paula Chateauneuf and the vocals of Il Fagolini’s Robert Hollingworth and lends a Renaissance feel to Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” and a gloriously silly Italian version of “When I’m Cleaning Windows”, no less. The pair of productions are ably directed by Jonquil Panting.
One of the big treats of my childhood Christmas was a selection box of goodies which could be savoured gradually (ahem!), and these tales are perhaps an aural equivalent with new delights in each of the ten pieces. If it’s not too late I just might ask Santa to put a copy of Boccaccio’s stories in my virtual stocking ready for the next lockdown/self-isolation period and then I can replicate the original conceit when it inevitably rolls round. I can feel another project coming on!