Reviews West End & Central Published 12 August 2013

Liolà

National Theatre ⋄ 31st July-6th November 2013

The slipperiness of truth.

Neil Dowden

Luigi Pirandello is best known for his modernist metaphysical explorations of appearance and reality in plays like Six Characters in Search of an Author, which foreshadowed the Theatre of the Absurd. This early, rarely performed comic piece from 1916, much more naturalistic than metatheatrical, seems hardly recognisable as the master magician’s work, though on closer inspection Liolà does indeed presage some of his later preoccupations.

Set in Pirandello’s native Sicily, the play revolves around the romantic and working relationships of country folk. The free-wheeling fecundity of simple labourer Liolà, who has already fathered three boys with different mothers, is contrasted with the mean-spirited, elderly Simone who has no children to inherit his considerable land. Simone unjustly blames his young wife Mita, and is persuaded to pass himself off as the father of the unborn child of kinswoman Tuzza, Liolà’s latest conquest. However, the game does not play out as expected.

Although the stylistic experiments of his mature plays are not present here, Liolà does touch on Pirandello’s characteristic theme of the slipperiness of truth, while the generally light-hearted tone is edged by darker notes with which we associate him. The play could be accused of misogyny in the way that Pirandello appears to idealise the of the carefree title character – perhaps as a sort of wish-fulfilment for his own unsatisfactory relationships with women – who is not only sexually irresistible but shows genuine affection for his kids, whom his doting mother looks after. However, Tanya Ronder’s earthy new version to some extent counteracts this inequality by giving a stronger voice to female characters in a patriarchal society.

Richard Eyre’s wonderfully warm, atmospheric production captures well the sense of a tight-knight community from whom nothing stays secret for very long, with women gossiping as they sit around cracking almond shells. Anthony Ward’s evocative design of crumbling stone wall, olive tree and blue-sky/starlit night backdrop sets the scene well. Rather confusingly at first, this southern Italian setting is filled by people with Irish accents, while Orlando Gough’s infectious songs draw on Balkan gypsy music with a live band, but we soon get into the swing of it, helped by Scarlett Mackmin’s spirited choreography, including an opening tarantella fertility dance.

Rory Keenan makes an attractively roguish Liolà, twinkle-toed and twinkle-eyed, who seems to get away with it by exuding a lust for life which beguiles those around him, unlike James Hayes’ crabby, dried up Simone, weighed down by property and position. Lisa Dwyer Hogg affectingly portrays the plight of the abused Mita, while Jessica Regan reveals the stubbornness beneath Tuzza’s demure exterior. There are also strong supporting performance from Rosaleen Linehan as Mita’s sardonic aunt and Aisoling O’Sullivan as Tuzza’s formidable mother.

Performed as almost a musical, this thoroughly entertaining show gives a relatively lightweight work by Pirandello a beguiling charm. And to prevent the sultry Sicilian summer from becoming too monotonous there is occasionally a refreshingly autumnal nip in the air.

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

Liolà Show Info


Directed by Richard Eyre

Written by Luigi Pirandello, in a new version by Tanya Ronder

Cast includes Rory Keenan, James Hayes, Lisa Dwyer Hogg, Jessica Regan, Rosaleen Linehan, Aisoling O’Sullivan

Link http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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