Review: Liolà, National Theatre

“This is a potato party” 

Expectations are a funny thing. Luigi Pirandello’s reputation as one of our foremost dramatists comes from his metaphysical musings on identity and self but his 1916 play Liolà comes from a very different place and so may leave you nonplussed if expecting something akin to Six Characters in Search of an Author. Instead, Tanya Ronder’s new version directed by Richard Eyre is a rollicking tale full of song and dance, set in a Sicilian village from which most of the men have migrated. The two that remain, Liolà and Simone, are surrounded by a veritable multitude of women with whom a number of complicated relationships are in place.

Ageing landowner Simone married the much younger Mita in order to provide him with the heir he desperately craves but five years of marriage have produced no children. By contrast, local lothario Liolà has knocked up at least three of the local girls and now has three children who are raised by his mother. But when he gets Simone’s young cousin Tuzza pregnant, she and her mother espy a scheme to play on Simone’s fears of childlessness and pass the child off as his own. But Mita and Liolà were childhood sweethearts and together they plot her own revenge. 

Everything is done under the watchful view of the community but even though the location is Pirandello’s native Sicily, Eyre has made the characters all Irish and the frequent musical interludes contains elements of folk and gypsy tunes that feel closer to the Balkans. Where some might find confusion in this melding of styles, I found it liberated the piece, finding echoes in plays such as Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa and Lorca’s Bernard Alba, (mostly) Catholic communities simultaneously finding ways to break the rules that bind their society yet casting the ultimate scorn on those who are caught. 

And it is powerfully, persuasively done. The likes of Rosaleen Linehan as Mita’s aunt Gesa, Charlotte Bradley as Liolà’s mother Ninfa and Eileen Walsh’s spinster of the parish Càrmina fill the air with fruity gossip and tuneful song as they sit shelling almonds and pass comment on all that goes before them, especially the intransigent Azzaras – a near-hysterical Aisling O’Sullivan and a taciturn Jessica Regan as the mother and daughter who dare to look out for themselves. Rory Keenan is outrageously charming as the titular Liolà, wittily possessed of his own accompanying band but also possessed of an underlying sadness at his roguish destiny. Lisa Dwyer Hogg’s Mita is affecting as the much-maligned Mita but as she engineers the situation to her advantage, the sly satisfaction at the downfall of her rival suggests the beginnings of lifelong feuds rather than happy endings.

This slight sourness cuts through all the charm quite effectively, hinting that there’s much more unhappiness in the world than is presented in Pirandello’s (or indeed Ronder’s) writing, but the hint of it is just enough without challenging the prevailing mood. And it is a delightful one indeed with Orlando Gough’s remarkably memorable tunes lingering long in the mind and a thoroughly enjoyable time to be had by all.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Programme cost: £3 
Booking until 6th November

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