Liolà – November 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Luigi Pirandello, adapted by Tanya Ronder

Directed by Richard Eyre

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 6th November 2013

This was a very good production and an excellent adaptation too; well worth the trip up to see it. We took our seats very close to the off today, as a body in front of a train at Wimbledon had shut off our usual route to the National: change at Clapham for Waterloo. But the Victoria line was still open, and we had just enough time to get to the National the long way round. As a result, we missed some of the foreplay, but did arrive in time to see the central platform on the stage being cleaned by a group of women using foot cloths.

They were assisted in this activity by some lovely music from the band, who were sitting on the right of the stage under a spreading tree which had several strings of lights hanging from it. They sat on plain wooden chairs, and there were a number of similar chairs around the back and left side of the platform as well. The platform itself wasn’t very high and had a slight rake, while around the back were the bare plaster walls of the various houses; there was just one small window visible towards the right of the back wall.

During the pre-match entertainment, I spotted one young woman in a white nightdress who was swaying and rocking to the music. She was almost in a trance, and as the performance proper started she moved or was brought onto the platform with the musicians standing around her, and began to dance more strangely still. Most of the other characters stood around her as well, clapping along to the music, while the other young women flicked their shawls at her from time to time. The music stopped abruptly, and after most of the characters left the stage, the young woman stayed there and introduced herself to us: Mita, the wife of a wealthy landowner. Despite being married for five years, she hadn’t born her husband a child, and that was why she had been dancing.

Her husband Simone introduced himself next, and then the various other characters, finishing with Liolà himself. Simone was elderly, and since his first wife hadn’t produced any children either, the prevailing belief was that Simone was the one firing blanks. In other respects his family was vast, with one cousin, Croce, running part of his business by arranging the pickers for the various harvests. During the opening scene, there were lots of women sitting around cracking almonds, and their gossip filled in a lot of the details for us.

Croce was also the only one present who considered that the blame for Simone’s childlessness could be laid at Mita’s door, an accusation her aunt Gesa was quick to refute, and to be fair the evidence was against the man. Croce had hoped that Simone would marry her daughter, Tuzza, when his first wife died, and his lack of an heir was good news for her; as things stood, she would inherit a sizeable chunk of Simone’s wealth when he died, even if she didn’t scoop the lot.

There were three young lads who turned up from time to time and were identified as Liolà’s sons by different women. He was a real jack-the-lad type, but at least he acknowledged each of his children and took them into his mother’s home; she was happy to look after them from what I could see. Along with his happy-go-lucky personality and a way with women, he sang a lot, and there were plenty of songs whenever he was on stage as well as at other times. His arrival led to lots of flirting with everything in a skirt – his mother excepted – and from the strange reactions of Tuzza, we were instantly aware that she was another of his conquests, although the story wasn’t as straightforward as we thought at first.

Tuzza was indeed pregnant by Liolà, but she’d done it not out of love for the man but out of a desire for revenge against Mita. Having been told by her mother that she, Tuzza, would marry Simone, thus making them comfortable for the rest of their lives, she not only lost out in the husband stakes to Mita but had to endure the fact that Loilà was also keen on Mita. Determined to take both men from her rival, Tuzza deliberately got herself pregnant with Liolà’s willing but unknowing assistance, and now she planned to offer the child to Simone as a way of providing him with an heir. Liolà, meanwhile, was prepared to marry Tuzza to make amends for dishonouring her – the other women who had produced his children had been no better than they should be, so no dishonouring had been involved – and wasn’t happy to have his own fatherhood denied in favour of Simone.

Liolà had made the very same offer to Simone earlier in the day – that he should ‘till’ Simone’s ‘ground’, with the resulting ‘crop’ belonging to the man who owned the ‘ground’ – but was rejected. This time, Simone was more than happy to accept the baby as his, and even went around the village crowing about his success at fathering a child; well, he’d had to take a lot of stick during the barren years, so perhaps it’s understandable. With the cuckoo apparently snug in Simone’s nest, Tuzza and Croce could relax and look forward to a life of comfort.

Not so Mita. Her husband’s reaction to this ‘good news’ was to treat his wife shamefully, hitting her and calling her useless. She ran back to her aunt, who was so incensed by Simone’s treatment of her niece that she immediately stormed off into town to find a lawyer so that she could sue Simone. This left Mita alone and feeling vulnerable, so when Liolà offered her the chance for revenge, by getting herself pregnant via the same means as Tuzza, it only took a heavy-handed approach by Simone to make her overcome her reluctance and join Liolà in a slow dance, a metaphor for their night of passion.

They ran this without an interval, although if they had wanted to take one it could well have been done at this point. Instead, Càrmina, another unmarried woman, came on as Liolà and Mita were entwining their way off stage and launched into a song, That’s How It Is, reflecting on the innate unfairness of life and the need to accept things as they are. The other women joined in and this bled into another dance, this time around Croce and Tuzza sitting on chairs in the middle of the platform, with Tuzza noticeably rounder than she had been before.

The song and dance done, the others left them alone, which was significant; apparently the rest of the townsfolk had made their disapproval of the situation known by shunning both mother and daughter. With the grape harvest pending, that meant no workers to pick the grapes, and Croce was getting worried. Mind you, they were even more worried when first Liolà and then the rest of the village turned up, all looking extremely happy and smiling broadly. Naturally the news about Mita’s condition hadn’t reached this pair of social pariahs, so when Simone turned up to give them the good and bad news, we were in for a very entertaining confrontation.

Sure enough, Simone seemed to think he could get away with ignoring the inconvenient baby he’d previously acknowledged as his, showing him to be a much bigger villain than the apparently feckless Liolà, who was happy to take Tuzza’s baby into his extended family but no longer wanted to marry Tuzza herself. Mita sat in the sole remaining chair – the returning workers had removed the others for their own comfort – and steadfastly maintained that her baby was Simone’s, while he, who knew the truth about Tuzza’s baby, made it clear that a baby in the wife was better than two in the bush, so to speak.

Eventually Croce and Tuzza accepted the inevitable, and left the stage to the happy couple and the wife’s aunt, who sat back on another chair with a look of rampant smugness which was very funny. With Simone standing behind his wife, they looked like a pose for a family photo, and as the other characters came and stood beside them, the effect was multiplied. This led into the final section, with Liolà turning up and saying his piece, refusing Tuzza in the process, followed by a final reprise of That’s How It Is. Liolà spoke the last “That’s how”, and the cast all scampered off stage, only to return for plenty of applause.

There were excellent performances all round. James Hayes was good as the doubly cuckolded husband desperate for an heir, any heir, while Rory Keenan was perfect as the womanising Liolà. The play brings out the importance of women in these small communities, and those parts were all done wonderfully well; I particularly enjoyed Eileen Walsh as Càrmina and Rosaleen Linehan as Gesa. The band comprised six musicians – fiddle, accordion, clarinet, guitar, trombone and double bass – who were also excellent, and the blend of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern music with the Irish accents worked very well. The costumes were appropriate for 1900s Sicily, and the set was atmospheric without overpowering the play – just how I like it. There was plenty of humour and a great affection for the various characters which was brought out well in both the adaptation and production. We’re glad we caught this one, and I’d be happy to see another production if we ever get the chance.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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