There are few plays that can grip ones curiosity so quickly and then keep you utterly enthralled throughout as Franco Zeffirelli’s masterful production of Luigi Pirandello’s play “Absolutely! (Perhaps)”. Other people’s living arrangements and seeming eccentricities are always sources of endless speculation and none provide such a rich supply as the two main characters of this delightful comedy.
Signor Ponza lives with his wife in a run down area of a small Italian town whilst housing his mother-in-law Signora Frola in a much wealthier district. This in itself is a curiosity for his nosey neighbours, but the mystery deepens even more when they discover that Signor Ponza does everything he can to keep his mother-in-law from visiting his wife.
Signora Frola visits her daughter daily, but she never enters her daughter’s apartment, instead she only speaks to her daughter from the pavement whilst her daughter remains out of site on the balcony. Signora Frola also exchanges letters with her daughter during these visits, the Signora places her letters in a basket, which her daughter pulls up to the balcony via a rope and then lowers her letters of reply in the same way.
Both Signor Ponza and Signora Frola have different rationalisations for their behaviours. According to Signor Ponza his mother-in-law was driven mad by grief when her daughter died and has only come to terms with this terrible tragedy by deceiving herself that his second wife is her daughter. However, Signora Frola explains their curious behaviour by insisting that it is Signor Ponza who is mentally unbalanced by insisting that his first wife, her daughter, is dead and that he is now remarried to a different woman. More strangely, Signor Ponza, his wife and his mother-in-law are content with their arrangement.
The only people not content are their nosey neighbours, who insist upon knowing the truth. However, the more the townspeople pry the deeper the mystery becomes as layer upon layer of new ‘truths’ are revealed. Pirandello makes it clear that it is nothing more than interfering inquisitiveness that motivates these people. They insist on prying no matter how much pain and discomfit it may cause the people who so fascinate them.
Pirendello comments upon his own play through the character of Lamberto Laudisi, who he uses to ask philosophical questions about the nature of reality and illusion, fact and fiction. Can we ever know another person? Isn’t one person’s truth another person’s lie? Whilst the townspeople are exasperated by Signor Ponza and Signora Frola and the ambiguity that surrounds them, he remains fascinated by the way these two people have come to live with reality by believing a fantasy, as he says, “Fantasy and reality dancing together, rather gracefully in fact – and suddenly you can’t tell the difference between them.”
Oliver Ford Davies is brilliant as Lamberto. He delights in annoying his neighbours and asking the most abstruse questions. He takes every opportunity to thicken the plot and chuckles unmercifully at his scandal gossiping neighbours whilst expressing sympathy and understanding for Signor Ponza and Signora Frola. Joan Plowright, holds in tact her reputation as a great theatre dame. She beautifully captures Signora Frola’s contained grief, compassion and dignity in disaster. Darrell D’Silva’s Ponza is intense and grows in agitation as the play continues. These three actors are enhanced by a wonderful supporting cast: Ann Carteret and Gawn Grainger as the endlessly quarrelling couple who take every opportunity to make sniping remarks, and Barry Stanton as the arrogant councillor to name but a few.
The stage design by Zeffirelli is a grand and luxurious wall of mosaics decorated with a walkway of mirrors and metal frames that cleverly represents the fractured nature of truth and illusions. Each time one has built a contextual frame around the lives of Ponza and Frola it is shattered by a further revelation, and each shattering further confuses fact and fiction creating a kaleidoscope of truths, or should that be falsehoods.
During the second half, the curtain was lowered for a couple of minutes between acts and the theatre was a buzz with the audience excitedly talking about the play each deciding which version of the truth to try and defend. I did hear one person say, “A whole town would not be so caught up in the life of two people”. How little this person knows human nature, I thought. Starting this Friday the whole of the UK will be discussing the new contestants of the Big Brother House and the ‘gutter’ press will be running a media circus into the private lives of the contestants under the pretext of “People have a right to know!”
Pirandello's parable on the chasm between appearance and reality is providing unlikely entertainment for West End audiences at the Wyndams theatre. Part-philosopher, part dramatist, Pirandello revolutionised ideas of theatre in the early twentieth century, anticipating the existentialism of Satre and the absurdity of Beckett, albeit in a peculiarly Italian manner.
Of his many plays, Absolutely (perhaps) is one of the less well known. It lacks the physical transformations and fashionable intertextuality of Six Characters in Search of an Author, and the vicious anti-bourgeois satire of some of his one act plays, but instead concentrates on one particular situation, which it develops an increasingly hyper-real manner. The situation involves a mother, daughter, and son-in-law, newly arrived in a town, whose behaviour has the inhabitants of the town alive with curiosity and suspicion. It appears that the family's living arrangements are unconventional, prompting endless speculation by the locals as to the reasons for their actions. Pirandello's representative in all this is Laudisi, a professor, whose refusal to engage in gossip betrays his belief that the reality of another being and a set of relationships are ultimately unknowable.
Pirandello is sometimes represented as being dry and lacking in emotional content. Nothing could be less true. His true subjects are passion and madness represented here by Signora Frola her daughter and son in law, which Pirandello believes, is more real than conventional reality because it is closer to the primordial chaos underlying all attempts at polite civilisation. Hence the supposedly mad characters here have an integrity which their wild reversals of mood and lapses in logic cannot undermine.
Franco Zeffirelli captures these paradoxes in a production that is strongly acted and beautifully designed. Visually the intricacy of the argument is represented in a maze-like screen running from floor to ceiling, which both is and is not solid, and by reflecting panels on either side of the stage. He has chosen to have audience members onstage, suggesting a confusion of actor-spectator roles, which he exploits as the play develops. Against this mazy confusion are set the strangers, all in black, who finally are united in their illusions forming a circle which the others cannot penetrate.
Joan Plowright gives a beautifully judged performance as the Signora, radiating dignity, and just enough playfulness to suggest she may not be quite the shy, guileless old lady she seems. Darrell D'Silva as her son-in-law is wonderfully volatile, switching from anger to grief to complete coolness in a moment. My one doubt was about the casting of Oliver Ford Davis, who seemed initially rather uncomfortable in the role of Laudisi. I couldn’t help feeling this fine actor was simply too English for the part. The rest of the cast were strong, especially Liza Tarbuck as Signora Amalia, showing she can cope with straight theatre.
I would certainly recommend this play as an intelligent evening out. It is thought provoking and entertaining, and provides a sense of adventure and experimentation, which is all too rare on the West End stage. Don't go, however, expecting an easy ride, Pirandello loves surprising the audience, and provides no easy solutions to his existential gymnastics.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Riveting contemporaneity...fresh, witty.." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "You would be hard pressed to find a more dazzling first act in London theatre ....it is like a thriller without the boring bits." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Gripping and entertaining." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Outstanding production." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Though there is much to laugh at...what we remember are not the jokes but Pirandello's metaphor of human relationships..."
External links to full reviews from popular press