Theatre review: Liola - An unexpected delight from the National


Pirandello described this play as a comedy “full of songs and light-hearted it doesn't seem like one of my works” and, to be sure, it will come as quite a surprise to anyone expecting the usual tricksy, meta-theatrical meditations on the relativity of truth and the deceptiveness of personal identity et al.

But the writer had published many short stories of Sicilian rural life before his relatively late success as a dramatist and Liola (1916) has more in common with these than with the classic Pirandello of Six Characters in Search of an Author.   

Using a new version by Tanya Ronder, Richard Eyre's beautifully judged production keeps the sun-baked Sicilian setting (a gnarled olive tree overhangs the wooden platform that constitutes the village square in Anthony Ward's strong, simple design) but his excellent cast give an Irish accent to the proceedings. Because of emigration through poverty, this is a world numerically dominated by the women who have gathered to shell the almond crop.

The two male characters are comically polar opposites. Rory Keenan oozes cocky charm and is wonderfully at ease in his own flesh as the free-spirited Liola who has already fathered three sons by as many girls, whereas James Hayes's crabbed landowner Simone still has no heir after five years of marriage to the lovely, abused Mita (Lisa Dwyer Hogg). It's a token of his frustration that when a young relative of his falls pregnant by Liola, he's prepared to claim that the child is his. But Liola, who has long loved Mita, realises that this is a game that can be played more than once and in her interest. 

The production, which is part of the Travelex £12 season, is suffused with Orlando Gough's attractive Balkan-tinged music played by an onstage gypsy band who, amusingly, underline how Liola has the world on a string by striking up and stopping at his whim like some personal backing group. Morally, the play is meant to be a bit equivocal all round and one notices here how, once she has her own lie to brazen out, the vulnerable Mita becomes discomfitingly hard-eyed and unsmiling. In a terrifically animated and convincing ensemble, Rosaleen Linehan brings a splendidly sardonic glint to her elderly aunt Gesa and Aisling O'Sullivan revs into a roaring termagant as the furious, scheming mother of her foiled rival.  The mood is hauntingly amplified by the songs such as “That's How It Is”, the chorus of unillusioned shrugging acceptance with which the show closes. An unexpected delight. 

To Nov 6; 0207 452 3000