This year is the 75th anniversary of Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello’s death and, to celebrate his work, Metta Theatre are touring cafés across the UK with a new adaptation of The Man With The Flower In His Mouth. Filling time in a café until she can catch a train home, a lone traveller gets chatting to an odd clown-cum-storyteller-cum-philosopher. After some polite exchanges, the man becomes increasingly agitated until it is clear that something is deeply troubling him; eventually a secret is revealed that leaves the traveller in tears while the man leaves her life as quickly as he entered.
Pirandello’s plays, ambitious, surreal and groundbreaking, are very rarely performed, save for his most famous work Six Characters in Search of an Author. He enjoyed turning formulaic theatre structures and characters on their heads and though his approach was undoubtedly interesting and unique, this intense abstraction means his plays are very hard to do well. They require a sure hand and the time and space to develop; if not handled skilfully, then the audiences can be left at sea. This production is one that struggles to strike the right balance.
Their choice of location, in the Bristol branch of Boston Tea Party, in itself is awkward. In theory, a show set and performed in a café could be quite a nice device, but in reality this very literal choice of venue manages to muddy the show’s sense of setting. There is a chance that it works better in cafés with more sympathetic layouts but the decision to have the actors walking across the café (awkwardly clambering over audiences members as they go) to order their drinks by shouting down the stairs was baffling. The role of the audience themselves is also confused; although they share the space, in full light, sitting on tables and chairs identical to those of the characters, they are never acknowledged.
The characters feel hastily sketched too, particularly Liana Weafer’s somewhat lifeless traveller. The heart of the play is supposedly her change in perspective on life, a change triggered by this chance meeting, but Weafer’s limp portrayal means it’s difficult to get much of a handle on who she is at the beginning of the production, let alone the end. Granted it’s difficult when the script gives her barely a handful of lines and her costume does little to inspire but she spends the duration simply staring at the man, while giving little indication of her true feelings. Although she manages to produce a real tear in the final moments, it can’t disguise this lack of depth.
Samuel Collings, as the tragic jester, fares a little better in his portrayal and is quite likeable at first. Dressed in bowler hat, red corduroy jacket and tweed trousers, he is tatty, dirty and dazed (the cliché of the washed-up carnival clown) and as he starts extracting a series of random objects from his pockets, there is a beautiful sense of this pair of strangers starting to share each other’s silent attentions. As soon as they start talking, however, and the routine pleasantries are out of the way, he rapidly becomes an incoherent rambler and ranter whose countless mood-swings and philosophic musings progressively alienate the audience so that, by the time the production reaches its predictably tragic conclusion, any sense of sympathy on the part of the audience has long since drained away.
With a script that already has so many layers, it’s probably not advisable to confuse matters further and leave your audience drifting. It’s an ambitious show for any company to perform (and you can see how Metta Theatre were drawn to it, given their strong record in circus theatre and puppetry) but it feels like they have bitten off rather more than they can chew here.