10/27/13 (Sun), London, National Theatre

Liolà, a rather obscure Pirandello play, seemed an odd choice for the National Theatre. But if nothing else, it was being directed by Richard Eyre, soon to retire as the National’s artistic director after a spectacularly successful term. That seemed good enough reason to catch it. 

The show, unusual for the absurdist plays Pirandello is known for, was an unexpectedly light, earthy and straightforward story set in rural Sicily. Liolà, a young philander, has a way with women – he has three children by three different mothers – but an endearing personality that makes him impossible to dislike. He is in fact a hard worker and devoted father, and his contagious zest for life is evident in his constant singing and dancing. Meanwhile, the rich old man of the village is upset because his wife has not given him a child, which he attributes to her failings. When a village girl gets pregnant from a quickie with Liolà, he does the right thing by offering to marry her. However, egged on by her greedy mother, she rejects him, instead making a deal with the old man to pretend the child is his. That will give him a child while giving her access to his wealth. Unfortunately for her, Liolà ruins that scenario by impregnating the old man’s wife as well, which the old man quickly takes credit for. No longer needing the village girl, he dumps her, and when she tries turning back to Liolà, she finds his offer withdrawn, not with malice but with a gentle upbraiding. For all his loose ways, he is actually morally upstanding – he had offered to make her honest, and promises credibly even now to be a good father to the child – whereas she and her mother were concerned only with themselves and their reputations. Good triumphs in an unexpected way.

The setting, though kept nominally in Sicily, was shifted in reality to an Irish village, and the actors in the overwhelmingly female cast played that to the hilt with Irish accents and stereotypes, which worked beautifully. The show was performed fluidly on a single set with quick rearrangement of chairs and such for scene changes. I winced when I saw the band on stage, since musicians often act as fillers and (as in most of Shakespeare) can be grating. But that happily was not the case here, helped maybe by the Irish-ness of it all. The songs were fun and tuneful, and the lyrics were actually quite good.

The main actor was appealing and energetic, and it was easy to understand how the girls would fall for him. But the most memorable personalities were the mother, daughter and old man, all sharply drawn roles played with great flair. While this was not a major show by any means, it was an unexpected pleasure from start to finish. I guess I still can’t say that I’ve seen a real “Pirandello”, but this was a lovely substitute.


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