Ultimate sleazeball or tortured romantic? The truth about serial seducer Casanova

‘Once I started the research,” says Kenneth Tindall, “I was shocked at how much Casanova achieved, how brilliant his mind was, how many different roles he played in one lifetime.” The son of two Venetian actors, Casanova was a priest, a violinist, an author, a gambler, a soldier, a diplomat, an occultist and a prisoner. Tindall begins his wonderment afresh: “To translate The Iliad, to speak seven languages, to start the state lottery in France – the list is sort of endless. I came away thinking, as I sat there watching Netflix, ‘I’m really not living enough!’”

But then, everyone thinks they know who Giacomo Casanova was: the famous cad whose name became synonymous with seduction; the breaker of hearts all across Europe. But if that were all there was to the 18th-century libertine, there’s no way he would have become such an enduring cultural figure, inspiring everything from the 1918 novella Casanova’s Homecoming by Arthur Schnitzler to the Pet Shop Boys song Casanova in Hell. Then there are the film stars who brought the unscrupulous lover back to life, from Bela Lugosi to Richard Chamberlain and John Malkovich. More recently, we’ve had a Divine Comedy album, a Horrible Histories song – and a ballet by Tindall, premiered in 2017, now restaged and touring the UK.

“I quickly realised,” he says, “that people don’t really know anything about Casanova at all.” That he was charismatic and quick-witted is a given, but for multiple incarnations, on stage and on screen over the decades, each creator has taken a different view, informed as much by their own times and sensibilities as the protagonist’s.

Dennis Potter made Casanova the subject of his first TV series in 1971. Starring Frank Finlay, who was Oscar-nominated for his Iago in Olivier’s Othello, Potter’s version takes freedom as its theme. Framed by Casanova’s incarceration in the Doge’s palace – from which he made an audacious escape – the story is told in flashbacks and flashforwards, with multiple bare-breasted women opening their arms to him, looking straight down the camera lens (très risqué at the time).

This Casanova is both a complete sleaze (“There is not a woman alive who cannot be conquered”) and a tortured romantic haunted by the various loves he’s left behind. The women seem to be giddily enjoying themselves, although as Casanova’s advances move from flattering to cajoling to domineering, it’s impossible not to feel ill at ease in the #MeToo era. Potter may skirt the darkness but it’s still simmering beneath. The writer was sexually abused by his uncle as a 10-year-old. Talking about it in the 1990s, he said: “I was trapped by an adult’s sexual appetite.” It feels like that’s the story he’s telling here about Casanova’s young “conquests”.

Nonetheless, in Potter’s telling, you are mostly on the character’s side. When the great Italian film-maker Federico Fellini read Casanova’s memoir, however, he apparently took a serious disliking to the man. You can see that disgust in the director’s 1976 film, in which Donald Sutherland plays him as a strangely blank, increasingly lonely and pathetic figure – a slave to his impulses who desires (and fails) to be taken seriously for his mind.

It’s a film full of high hairlines, powdered faces, Oscar-winning costume designs and a look so ripe it seems about to rot. The sex is clothed and either comically choreographed or disturbing – especially the rape of an artist’s model in front of a bawdy court – and his conquests include a mechanical doll. At the end, Casanova is reduced to a shabby relic as the librarian at the Castle of Dux in what is now the Czech Republic, where he died aged 73.

Thirty years on, the mood had changed, with troubling symbolism replaced by comedy capers. The way to treat Casanova’s legacy now was to make light of it. Two screen versions appeared in 2005: Lasse Hallström’s film, starring Heath Ledger, and a BBC series by Russell T Davies that made David Tennant a leading man just before he took over Doctor Who (in case you are wondering, the titles of these works are almost always Casanova). Both leads are likable scamps rather than lascivious lotharios, getting one over on authority (and their leg over while they’re at it). Both also feature women masquerading as men in order to have their voices heard – and a big dose of feminism.

Tennant’s hero is an adventurer, resilient, upbeat, always coming out on top, and he falls genuinely in love. That version is full of colour, noughties music and jokes … until it suddenly descends into a surprisingly dark ending as Casanova finally reaps what he sows and Davies shows us where complete liberty leads. In Hallström’s Hollywood take, it’s all happy endings, with Ledger consciously undermining Casanova’s reputation. “I don’t conquer,” he insists. “I submit.” This reading is based around a single (fictional) love affair with a feisty feminist scholar, played by Sienna Miller. He meets his match, she can’t stand him, but in the end falls for him anyway. It’s pure romcom.

Not long after, theatre company Told By an Idiot went one step further in the feminist stakes and made Casanova a woman. Director Paul Hunter wanted to subvert this iconic male figure and give actor Hayley Carmichael a meaty part. Poet Carol Ann Duffy wrote a fantastical script which takes Casanova from falling in love on a 1940s ocean liner to a heavily symbolic scene in which our heroine is about to be gored by a bull but charms the animal into submission instead.

The effect of making Casanova a woman? “I think she was able to be more surprising in her conquests, harder to read somehow,” says Hunter. “We’d always been fascinated by the space between laughter and pain – and it felt like there was something really juicy here. When she was working in the library, it was very poignant, this old woman on her own, revisiting the ghosts of her past. It became more complex.”

Interestingly, they ended up cutting out most of the sex. Carmichael said at the time that, even if she was in control, she still somehow looked like a victim. “However much you tried to subvert that,” says Hunter, “at times there was a sense of ‘Oh poor Casanova’ because she was a woman.” The possibility of a female libertine remains a juicy subject on screen, though, as the success of Fleabag shows.

So when Tindall came to remake the story for Northern Ballet, what type of Casanova did he want? Dance is perhaps the hardest form in which to capture the wiles, wit and complexities of such a multifaceted character. But Tindall found himself pulled in by the politics. “At that time,” he says, “Venice was the most policed state in the world. They’re morally loose, but religion is huge. Casanova is essentially arrested for being free-thinking and for joining the Enlightenment – for jumping social class. All things that are relevant now.”

But it’s the senses that are stimulated when the curtain first goes up, revealing a sumptuous set with beautiful dancers made to look ravishing by Tindall’s choreography, long legs everywhere, pointe shoes like talons. All these bodies do eventually have to become entangled, however, and one difference in restaging the show now – even compared with making it in 2017 – was the treatment of sexual encounters. Scottish Ballet, for example, recently hired an intimacy coach to work on a new production. “Dance is intimate by its nature,” says Tindall. “Bodies touch immediately, so it’s different from acting. But it’s essential to create a safe working space where everybody feels comfortable. It was a huge conversation for us.”

Tindall’s story, written with Casanova biographer Ian Kelly, tells the tale through his relationships with three key women, but Tindall has added new sections that reflect on Casanova’s character – especially his decline, his failing intellect and the loss of all the loves in his life. “He was always yearning for connection,” says Tindall. “It’s very Freudian with his mother at the beginning of his life. He’s neglected.”

For Tindall, Casanova’s story is still worth telling because he is so much more than a serial seducer. “That’s absolutely part of his life,” he says. “But the statistics – his bed-post notches compared to other libertines of the time – it’s low numbers.” The reason Casanova is the best known is because he wrote his own story, self-mythologising in his memoirs. “He was trying to leave behind something he was proud of,” says Tindall. “He would be over the moon to know there are still works being made about him now.”

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