THE National Theatre’s spirited, earthy reworking of Luigi Pirandello’s play Liola is a joyful piece which shows the playwright in unusually light-hearted form.
A blast of sunshine in theatrical form, Liola is the opposite of Pirandello’s usual dark work, which was overshadowed by the threat of madness (his own wife spent the majority of her days in a mental asylum). It’s certainly not one of his best works, but it’s a lot of fun.
Written in 1916 following a trip back to his native Sicily, it is bold for its time and, despite the sun and songs has plenty of bittersweet content. Centring on the story of a horrid, selfish old man who beats his wife as she has not borne him children, it follows the reaction of the village to talk of pregnancies, real and imagined, and the paternity of children real and yet to arrive.
The overriding sensation, however, is of life and light as the village’s inhabitants giggle, gossip, sing and dance to the sounds of a live band playing seductive gypsy music under the mangled old tree of the main square. The opening scene, which sees the older women rhythmically cracking almonds alongside the young ladies as they put the world to rights, is pure poetry.
Director Richard Eyre has cast the play with entirely Irish actors who often address the audience directly, including Rory Kinnear who in the lead role as sleazy womaniser Liola is superbly cavalier, and Rosaleen Linehan ,who has a wonderful twinkle in her eye, is excellent as Mita’s protective yet humorous old aunt.
It’s easy to see why Eyre would make such a setting choice– transferring the dramas of a rural Sicilian village in the 19th century to that of a rural Irish one at the same time, as many of the small-town themes remain.
Yet there is something more than a little jarring about the fact that we have an array of Irish accents, typically Irish turns of phrase (“Ah now, come over here a minute till I tell ye something Liola…”) from actors with exaggerated, Italian-style hand movements with a backdrop of baking sunshine, talk of grape-picking and names like Simone, Mita and Mother Croce.
Still, Eyre has brought a largely unknown play to life and made it if not relevant at least hugely enjoyable to a modern-day audience.
Liola runs until Nov 6. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.