Review: Liolà by Luigi Pirandello, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton stage

Aisling O’Sullivan as Croce Azzara, Rory Keenan as Liola. Photo Catherine Ashmore

Aisling O’Sullivan as Croce Azzara, Rory Keenan as Liola. Photo Catherine Ashmore

What does a Luigi Pirandello play look like? A lightness of touch that balances on darker themes, a life force that smashes through existential and moral questions, singing, live music, sunshine. On the evidence of Liolà, all these statements would be true. But Liolà is not a typical Pirandello play, “so light-hearted it doesn’t seem like one of my works” as the author himself admitted. In the National theatre production, directed by Richard Eyre in a version by Tanya Ronder, the tension between Pirandello’s darker preoccupations and the sensual drive of the story make for a delicious spiky treat.

Sicily, summer 1916. Baking sun, almond crops, barefoot children climbing trees. At the centre of it all, Liolà, a young man comfortable in his own skin, unburdened by convention, blazes through life, meets women, makes babies. His seductive power should be destructive but somehow it’s healing. Nimble-footed and nimble-spirited, he has the universe at his fingers (the live band stops playing at his slightest of signs) and turns magic tricks into the real deal. It’s a joy to watch Rory Keenan seduce every breathing soul in the room: effortlessly warm, unexpectedly selfless, he understands something profound about the human experience: joy is more powerful than conflict. (In that sense, the play is firmly rooted in Italy, even if this version makes a virtue of the irish accents: it’s easy to stave off desperation in the long mediterranean summer).

Around him, stories and characters teeter on the edge of tragedy but pull back by refusing to acknowledge desolation. It’s a morality play where justice is done but in unconvetional ways. Jessica Regan is perfect as the joyless and spurred Tuzza, Lisa Dwyer Hogg’s Mita transforms her desperation into strength and desire. James Hayes as Simone has the baked hardened quality of middle aged mediterranean men, and Eileen Walsh makes a strong impression as Càrmina, single minded, untouched, uncompromising.

Special mention should go to Carla Langley, Niamh McGowan and Roxanne Nic Liam who play three teenage girls flushed with the calling of life, and Felix Crutchley, Oliver Rosario and Tommy Fletcher McMeekin playing (the night I saw the production) Liolà’s young sons. Both groups swarm around in packs, the girls squeeing as all teenagers have done for centuries, the boys living their own adventure. It’s a joy to be reminded that the very young have a way of ignoring tragedy because life is too strong, the possibilities endless.

The set has the openness and blinding glow of the summer and the olive tree was so perfect for climbing that we started exchanging climbing childhood stories as we waited for the performance to start.

P.S. I like my Shakespearean analogies, and in a hardly justifiable way, Liolà reminded me of Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost: in a light almost careless way, both of them understand that life is not a cerebral exercise, sex and love is the card that trumps everything else.

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