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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
LIOLA
at the National (Lyttelton)

SONGS AND SUNSHINE
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Aisling O'Sullivan, Rosaleen Linehan, Charlotte Bradley, Eileen Walsh, Carla Langley, Roxanna Nic Liam and Niamh McGowan/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

Luigi Pirandello, whose best-known play Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) pushed the boundaries of contemporary theatre way beyond its original audiences’ levels of acceptance, was an experimental dramatist who traded mainly in misery and despair. As there weren’t many laughs to be excavated from the 41 plays he wrote, I’m happy to give a qualified nod to the excavation job Richard Eyre has performed on the little-known comedy Liola, which Pirandello wrote in 1916.

The experiment undertaken by its author in this relatively early work was to see whether he could write something light-hearted or, as he put it, a comedy “full of songs and sunshine” rather than yet another drama of brooding introspection.

The setting is Sicily, 1916. It’s summer and a group of women are gathering up almonds for a wealthy landowner in his 60s called Simone (James Hayes), who has everything he wants in life – except a child to inherit his considerable wealth. Simone is married to Mita (Lisa Dwyer Hogg), a much younger woman he (wrongly) blames for their childless state.

The only other significant male in a play dominated by women is the titular hero Liola (Rory Keenan), who is in every respect the antithesis of crabby Simone. A kind of wandering minstrel-cum-amateur magician who travels the countryside with his six-piece band, he’s also a local labourer whose hobby, it would appear, is impregnating anyone who’ll have him.

He has already fathered three young boys from three different women, loves his sons dearly and is happy they’re being raised by his mother (Charlotte Bradley) and some of the other women in the community. Free-spirited, unburdened by responsibility, and an exemplar of fertility and fecundity, he sings and jokes his way through life in contrast to the joyless and barren Simone, who offers nothing but doom and gloom.

Quite literally, Liola is the play’s lifef orce, and as the narrative unfurls he also becomes the piece’s deus ex machina by partaking in a ruse that sees him impregnating two more women – one of whom is Mita, who willingly partakes of a deception that allows Simone to claim the resultant baby as his own.

The deception is accepted unconditionally, and for Liola there is no retribution, no judgment. The play’s only victim is Tuzza (Jessica Regan), a local girl who refuses Liola’s uncharacteristic offer of marriage but agrees to father a child by him in the hope of passing it off as Simone’s, thereby assuring for herself and her scheming mother (Aisling O’Sullivan) a piece of the landowner’s wealth.

Running just over an hour and a half, Liola, with its constant sexual overtones, is little more than a minor curiosity by a playwright who would go on to write one of the seminal plays of the 20th century.

A new version of the text by Tanya Ronder keeps the piece’s original Sicilian setting, but rather than have the cast speak in mock-Italian accents, director Eyre has them adopt a distinctly Irish brogue because of the similarities he finds in the religion, the lilting cadences of language and the love of song shared between the two cultures.

It’s not without interest, but what’s on offer is more an extended anecdote than a fully satisfying play. The characterisations are, in the main, two dimensional, with the women much given to bickering, arguing, shouting and, in the case of a trio of teenage girls, giggling and shrieking. Simone is an unpleasant cuckold who elicits more contempt then sympathy, while Liola, despite the life force he is supposed to represent, isn’t particularly likeable and is bereft of any personal history or backstory.

Eyre’s direction is fine; Anthony Ward’s set is okay without being anything special; and the cast works hard, though on several occasions I found their accents difficult to penetrate. The songs by Orlando Gough wisely make no attempt to turn the show into a musical. I’m glad I’ve seen it but doubt whether I’ll repeat the experience in my lifetime.

 


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