Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Theatre review: Liolà

Pirandello's Sicilian tragicomedy Liolà is a bit of an oddity, especially coming from the author of Six Characters in Search of an Author: A music-soaked whirl through a small community, it comes in Richard Eyre's production with an all-Irish cast, perhaps to reflect the fact that the original is written in a local dialect. We may also be meant to infer a Catholic link, although the characters' Catholicism is here largely present so we can see them cheerfully ignore it. Simone Palumbo (James Hayes) is the wealthy landowner in a small village where pretty much everyone seems to be related. With nobody to leave his inheritance to he chose a much younger wife, but five years on Simone is 65 and Mita (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) still isn't pregnant. Enter Tuzza (Jessica Regan,) who's been knocked up by the local lothario, Liolà. She's willing to pretend the child is Simone's so it can inherit his money, and the old man's so desperate for an heir he might even start telling himself it's true.

Rory Keenan's Liolà is an amoral charmer who's already got three sons from different women. He's taken responsibility for them (in the sense that he's got his mother to raise them) but we hear little about their mothers, presumably fled from town in disgrace. The girl he cared most about was Mita, who instead chose the wealthy old man. Now that her stock has fallen, Liolà has a suggestion about how she can supply Simone with a baby of her own.

Liolà is a hard play to put your finger on, and although the creatives jump in with both feet they didn't convince me they'd pinned it down. Despite the Irish accents Anthony Ward's design has unambiguously kept the action in its original Mediterranean setting, and the play is full of music - an onstage group of musicians provides almost constant background sound, even following the all-singing, all-dancing Liolà around at times as if they're his personal accompaniment.

But although Eyre's production of Tanya Ronder's translation opts for a bright, summery interpretation of what's going on, the darker elements it glosses over are hard to ignore and leave the piece unable to settle into a satisfying tone: Liolà himself is never treated as anything over than a lovable rogue, the town's many women seemingly lining up to be knocked up by him, even though the fates of those he does seem rather murky, and far from the carefree life he continues to enjoy. There's hints of a political subtext to the play as the villagers discuss whether the landowner's power will some day be overthrown by something that sounds a lot like Communism, but hints are all we get.

And so, although the cast are hard to find fault in, I never felt as if Eyre had decided quite what Liolà is, and as a result I never felt properly involved in it. A couple of hours of Sicilian-Irish charm don't really have their effect if it feels as if that's not really the point of the story, and although there's a few smiles and chuckles to be had I didn't think the audience as a whole bought into the idea that this was the jolly tale of crazy folk it was being sold as, and the laughs didn't come as freely as the cast seemed to demand. Still, Richard was entertained at the start by spotting how much Mita, with her white dress and black hair hanging over her face, looked like Sadako from The Ring.

Liolà by Luigi Pirandello in a version by Tanya Ronder is booking in repertory until the 6th of November at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

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