When I ask Franco Zeffirelli about his long absence from the London stage, his reply is rather startling. "Many people wonder why I haven't come here more often – but I don't go to anyone's home unless I'm invited," he says cheerfully.
It's an astonishing omission, given that Zeffirelli was responsible for some of the most illuminating and memorable productions of the Sixties and Seventies: his revolutionary Romeo and Juliet with its authentically young cast, the Much Ado About Nothing played in the manner of a Sicilian comedy, and his vibrant accounts of Eduardo de Filippo's bittersweet comedies Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Filumena are now regarded as milestones in British theatre.
Twenty-seven years since the last of those productions, and more than a decade since his Italian staging of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author visited the National Theatre as part of the Festival of Nations, Zeffirelli is back in the West End with another Pirandello, Absolutely! (perhaps). "He's the greatest playwright of the last century. He completely changed the face of theatre," says Zeffirelli, who considers the Nobel laureate's work, if not exactly neglected, certainly not performed here as frequently as it should be. "The substance of his plays is universal, but some translations don't really do justice to Pirandello because his is a very difficult language to translate, and it creates a barrier. Even in Italian, it's a very special language."
The new adaptation from Martin Sherman, however, has effectively overcome this problem, believes Zeffirelli, "because it doesn't depend on a literal translation, but gets to the substance in a very pragmatic English fashion."
No bad thing, perhaps, given that the play deals not only with recurrent Pirandellian themes of the nature of identity, the relativity of truth, and madness, but adds to that heady mix the complexities of unreliable perceptions, illusion, and the instability of human personality.
"It's a masterpiece of dramatic geometry," explains Zeffirelli, "a very intricate family enigma about people who have lost all their documents – their identity – in an earthquake in Sicily. They give incompatible accounts of their story, which feeds the curiosity of the people of they town they come to. It's very rich and funny, and at the same time disquieting and disturbing, because you are never sure of anything. What seems to be certain at one moment becomes doubtful the next, and this enigma grows within the community to the point of hysteria."
Though Zeffirelli rarely works in theatre now, his animation suggests he has lost none of his appetite for the stage. "Theatre has a spicy taste of risk," he says, investing those words with a frisson which promises to demonstrate why he still ranks as one of the great theatre directors of our time.
Absolutely! (perhaps), Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Rd, London WC2 (020-7369 1736) booking to 23 AugReuse content