Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello (1876-1936) wasn’t renowned for his knockabout, frivolous style. Au contraire. The vast majority of his output was hardly laugh a minute stuff (no doubt was a reflection on his domestic situation).
His wife was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum for most of her life, and whilst I can’t empathise with Signor Pirandello on this, let’s just assume that it’s unlikely his marriage was a bed of roses.
Madness appears in much of what he wrote (understandably), so in many ways his play ‘Liolà,’ which has just been revived at London’s National Theatre in a traditional staging by Richard Eyre, seems to buck the trend.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an Italian version of ‘Whoops, there go my trousers.’ This play is frivolous and light-hearted by Pirandello’s standards, yet still manages to explore such side-splitting themes as the inability to bear children, deception, and abuse, cushioning them in a vivacious blanket of peasant song, dance and communal nut-cracking.
So what’s it all about? Set in Sicily in the early 1900s, the play focuses on an extended family, ruled with a clenched fist by the cantankerous Simone – a rich landowner who’s married to Mita.
Mita has been unable to have a child with Simone, so there’s no one to inherit his wealth. Enter Liolà, the town’s Lothario figure who has fathered at least three children by as many women. He’s already got another girl, Tuzza, pregnant, but when offer of marriage to her is rebuffed by Tuzza’s mother he walks away, leaving Tuzza, her mother and Simone to hatch a plot that will have consequences for everyone in the family.
Much of the play deals with themes that are recurrent within Pirandello’s plays, namely that events which happen in life can mean whatever you want them to mean – there are no hard and fast rules, so there’s plenty of ambiguity.
By casting an ensemble of Irish actors, Eyre treads a fine line between authentic peasantry and casual stereotyping, and although much of the acting is delivered with broad brush strokes, it’s still possible to discern that at its heart this staging is infused with warmth and tenderness.
As Liolà Rory Keenan plays down the priapic swagger, and instead delivers an exhilarating, lovable performance infused with warmth – it’s easy to see why the ladies fall for him.
As the bitter old Simone, James Hayes is suitably crotchety whilst Mita’s aunt is played by Rosaleen Linehan, who displays a wicked sense of humour throughout, yet deep down remains unfailingly loyal to her family.
With joyous outbursts of singing, and some fine ensemble playing, ‘Liolà‘ brings a touch of the Mediterranean to the South Bank this summer, albeit via the Emerald Isle.
Playing until 6 November. £12 Travelex tickets available for every performance.