Tonight, if ever there was one, was a night to be at The National Theatre on the Southbank. Celebrating 50 years since its inception (actually at The Old Vic) this was the night that every Thespian, Director, Playwright, Producer and anyone who was anyone else was at the theatre.
Don’t get me wrong! I was not myself among the star-studded audience in The Olivier Theatre, but at The Lyttelton where they were playing Liolà , a merry play by Pirandello, if that is not a contradiction in terms; Luigi Pirandello is not noted for merry plays, he has been described as ‘a poet of human suffering’. Liolà, though is rather different. Set among the almond groves and vineyards of Sicily, this is a play of deceptions, double dealing and love.
Surrounded by cousins, neighbours and family, the patriarch Uncle Simone is childless, a devastating blow to manhood in Sicilian society. His first wife died childless and now after five years Mita, his second wife has not conceived either, so when the daughter of his cousin falls pregnant (by the eponymous hero) Simone, nevertheless, prepares to publicly acknowledge the child as his, thereby humiliating Mita; this plan devised by his Cousin Croce with the agreement of her daughter Tuzza saves the family honour and the family inheritance…but the plan backfires when suddenly Mita also conceives.
The scene in which Liolà makes love to Mita, his childhood sweetheart, is expressed in a balletic, silent dance under the stars in the orchard; this is his way of making Mita’s life bearable and reluctantly at first, she agrees; but in agreeing her true devotion to Liolà is fulfilled and her triumph secured.
Liolà has already offered Tuzza his hand in marriage, though reluctantly and she refuses seeing that he is penniless and Uncle Simone will secure her fortune, even without marriage. So when Mita also turns out to be pregnant, Simone no longer wishes to share the burden of Tuzza’s baby, since he now has a ‘legitimate’ one; so Tuzza turns back to Liolà…but that was then. He will no longer have her.
Newly translated by Tanya Ronder, this production is given an Irish twist (though we still have the almond groves and vineyards) and the songs and dances, and even all the accents, are Irish in tone and the jigs and songs all have familiar tunes; this play is a delight to watch, though its amoral ending meant that for a long time it was banned from the contemporary (predominantly Catholic) Italian stage. Pirandello though knew that it would survive, in 1916 he wrote to his eldest son, at the time incarcerated in an Austrian prison-of-war camp, ‘the play will live a long time’. So it has, and long may that be true.