Leaving the theatre, a man behind me said to his companion: 'Well, that was.... unusual”. I would have liked to have heard more of the conversation because I felt I had just seen something unusual too. And even the author apparently had the same feeling, describing it as a comedy “full of songs and sunshine... so light-hearted that it doesn't seem like one of my works”. Moreover, it's not so much a play as a musical, or maybe a musical play, because the action is peppered with songs.
It's 1916 in a village in Sicily. Like many close-knit communities, this is a place where everyone knows each other and their business, and most of their secrets as well. But there is a community spirit where neighbours help each other with the harvesting of grapes and almonds. So, when we first meet the villagers, most are cracking almond nuts with small stones. The population of the village is predominantly female. Most of the men have left to find work elsewhere, for example in America. The male members of the community who have been left behind are old, or very young. However, there is one younger man called Liolà who seems to have taken on the task to single-handedly repopulate the village because at the start of the play he has already fathered three young sons – each by different women – and by the end of the play another two offspring are on the way. I suppose that could be regarded as quite unusual, though my knowledge of the mores of Sicilian life is sparse.
In his poor, native village, Liolà (Rory Keenan) is well-known - notorious might be a more apt description. He is a kind of liberated free-spirit, a charmer who has a magnetic way with women. Three teenage girls flock around him like young fans mooning over their pop-idol and giggling with delight when he puts in an appearance or flashes a glance in their direction. The older women in the village are perhaps more wary of him, but are nonetheless attracted to him as well. Though Liolà is the central character here, the plot actually revolves around another man, the sixty-five year-old Simone Palumbo, a wealthy landowner (James Hayes). Simone has been married to a much younger woman for five years, but the couple remain childless, and Simone is desperate for an heir. So, when one of Liolà's conquests finds herself pregnant, Simone sees an opportunity to claim the child as his, even though he still wants his wife, Mita, to continue living with him. That puts Mita in an unenviable position, but the charismatic Liolà has a solution.
Written by Luigi Pirandello in 1916 after a trip home to Sicily, this version is by Tanya Ronder and directed by Richard Eyre, with an Irish cast. Rory Keenan's excellent Liolà may seem like a predator, but he is not one to shirk his paternal responsibilities – in fact he seems to relish them. He looks after and cares for his children in a jovial, good-humoured and playful way. Though he is certainly a rogue, he is an immensely likeable one who is not merely self-centred. In a very real way he marshals and motivates the community, for example when grape harvesting is on the agenda. There's good work also from James Hayes as the childless landowner Simone, Rosaleen Linehan as the more experienced and knowledgeable Gesa (Mita's protective aunt), and Aisling O'Sullivan as Croce Azzara the mother of one of Liolà's pregnant conquests.
'Liolà' is a short play at around 100 minutes and is, as the original author described, a light comedy – no big laughs here, though it is certainly fun. The singing is good, and Orlando Gough's excellent music includes some poignant themes and one catchy song entitled 'That's how it is' which rounds-off the show. At times, there is more than a hint of farce, partly because of the nature of the problems Simone and Mita face and partly in the character of Liolà himself. However, lurking under the surface is something more serious and more tragic as we are forced to consider the predicament of women, living poor, harsh lives under a baking sun. In spite of that, though, the philandering but generous Liolà shows us that life can also be unusually joyous too, depending on how you look at things.
"An immensely subtle play about appearance and reality...I enjoyed the evening."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The play itself is slight, frivolous and disjointed. For all the vibrancy of the ensemble, it feels oddly flat."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Beautifully judged production."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"This may not be a great play by Pirandello’s demanding standards, but it is touching and entertaining and glows with the warmth of summer."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph