Luigi Pirandello is more known for projecting misery and suffering through his plays rather than joyfulness, so his 1916 offering, Liola, was as much a surprise to him as it was to his audiences. In fact he stated that the comedy is “full of songs and sunshine ….. so light-hearted it doesn’t seem like one of my works”. It is often attacked as being a misogynist play, despite only having two central roles for men, but in Richard Eyre’s production here at The Lyttleton, Liola comes across as a rather sad figure who would prefer a family life with a loving wife rather than the lonely, serial womanizer he has become. Liola may contain many more laughs than Pirandello’s other offerings, but there is still pain a plenty beneath the surface. A recurring theme for this Sicilian is that what you see on the outside bears no resemblance to what is going on inside.
The rather complicated plot concerns the rich local landowner, Simone Palumbo (James Hayes) who has been unable to produce a child either from his previous wife or his latest young bride, Mia (Lisa Dwyer-Hogg). His frustration is directed at the desperately unhappy Mia, as he can’t for the life of him admit that he may be the one at fault. At the other end of the spectrum is Liola (Rory Keenan), a childhood friend of Mia, who can’t seem to stop impregnating anyone in a skirt. His latest conquest is Simone’s niece, Tuzza (Jessica Regan) who, along with her mother, Croce ( Aisling O’Sullivan) hatch a plan to convince Simone that he should pass the unborn child as his, thus ensuring they get a slice of his fortune. Keen to show the villagers that it’s not his fault that Mia is childless, Simone agrees, not realizing that two can play at that game, namely Liola and Mia. The end result hardly enhances the lives of any of the protagonists.
The strange part about this new version by Tanya Ronder is that Richard Eyre, although staging it in its Sicilian setting, has cast it with Irish actors. So the excellent set, designed by Anthony Ward and complete with large olive tree, has an Italian sun blazing down on a village inhabited by people more used to seeing grey skies. Once you get your head around this anomaly, however, the exuberance and skill of the actors and musicians, renders their birthplace inconsequential.
The scene is set from the onset. On stage musicians are playing gypsy music, Liola’s three sons (cared for by him and his doting mother) have planted themselves in the olive tree and the village women are busy cracking almonds when not dancing around the stage. There is strong characterization from the cast, who, if a little o.t.t. at the start soon settle down into their believable roles. Rory Keenan, who could well be the type of man Pirandello would have liked to be, is especially good as Liola. Despite displaying the type of shallow, cocksure manner, which could easily be irritating, he is able to suggest a vulnerability, which ultimately makes him a likeable character. The other very impressive cast member is Rosaleen Linehan playing Mita’s compassionate aunt Gesa. Wise and comical in equal measure, she perfectly embodies an elderly peasant woman whose job it is to protect her niece. Also well worth a mention are Jessica Regan as Tuzza and, Croce, her mother, played by Aisling O’Sullivan.
A good if not a great play, but everyone seemed to be leaving the theatre with a smile on their face which can’t be solely down to the fact that we were out of there in one hour and forty minutes.