For the last few months, I’ve been hearing some interesting rumours about a new production of Pirandello’s Liolà at the Royal National Theatre in London – full details here .
The NT publicity is quite interesting:
Sicily, summer 1916. Gossiping and singing, the women gather to harvest old Simone’s almond crop. He’s the richest landowner in the district but he has no heir. Local lad Liolà, untroubled by convention, has fathered three little boys, each with a different mother, and that only intensifies Simone’s anguish. When another of the girls falls pregnant, Simone is persuaded he might recognize the baby as his own. But he’s forgotten the charms of his slighted young wife Mita, who is not so easily crushed.
All I should say, girls, is don’t be too sweet, lest you be eaten!
This high-spirited drama by Pirandello takes us to the heart of a rural community where property and family provoke fierce passions.
Sounds good, at least potentially, yes?
But here is the part that caught my attention:
Richard Eyre directs Tanya Ronder’s new version, performed by an Irish cast and gypsy musicians. It’s unexpected, funny and touching.
It’s important to state from the outset that this is indeed a great Irish cast, with lead roles being played by three of our greatest actresses: Aisling O’Sullivan, Eileen Walsh, and Rosaleen Linehan.
But I have to confess to being slightly unnerved by references to “an Irish cast and gypsy musicians”. I can understand the idea that rural Sicily might map on to rural Ireland in some ways, especially in terms of such issues as Catholicism, land ownership, the role of women, the suppression of sexual desire, and the relationship between vernacular/folk culture and modernist theatre (a link that can be found not only in Pirandello but also in Lorca and Synge, among others). And there have been Irish versions of Pirandello before, especially by Thomas Kilroy. So this seems like a potentially interesting mix.
But what catches my attention is the year in which the play takes place: 1916. That year obviously has a certain resonance in an Irish context, both in terms of the Rising and the Somme. It’s difficult to see how that can translate over to a Sicilian context. It appears that the play will be set in Sicily but that lines will be delivered in Irish accents, so I suppose we shouldn’t take matters too literally, but I suspect that the historical resonances could prove confusing for any Irish people in the audience.
I am sure that Tanya Ronder’s script will be carefully researched. And I am fully aware that Richard Eyre has a detailed knowledge of, and respect for, Irish drama. But I wonder who, in the list of creative personnel attached to the show, will be able to take responsibility for ensuring that the Irish elements of the production are coherent? And I also wonder why the decision was made to go with an Irish cast? It would be interesting to find out.
And does it matter that the adaptation is being written by an author who doesn’t seem to have much of a direct link with Ireland (though she has had great success with previous adaptations of Lorca and others)? She is, after all, writing for Irish voices, and that requires knowledge of the differences in our vocabularies, rhythms, and so on. Perhaps she has much more knowledge than I am aware of.
The NT has done something like this before, of course. In 2004, the English dramatist Rebecca Lenkiewicz staged a play there called The Night Season, setting it in Sligo. In a newspaper profile at the time, Victoria Segal explained the decision to set the play in Ireland as follows:
Despite having some Irish blood in her background, the playwright has never lived there… [Lenkiewicz] wanted to use Irish voices to facilitate her lyrical language, aware that the same words in an English accent might sound ‘flowery’’
Segal goes on to explain that the author, together with the play’s director Lucy Bailey, went on a so-called ‘fact-finding’ mission to Sligo in advance of the production’s opening (and apologies that I can’t link to the original article ).
I didn’t see that production but again it had a great Irish cast and while some of the language in the script struck me as unrealistic, the play itself was good. But at the time I was bothered by the idea that an author would choose to relocate an English story to an Irish setting simply to make the poetry of speech seem less flowery – and that a visit to Ireland is all that would be required to achieve authenticity.
In the event, those concerns didn’t seem to matter much to the play’s core audience.
But for similar reasons, I am curious about the decision to set Liolà in Sicily, but to cast it with Irish actors.
It would be wrong to judge a play that I haven’t seen, and it’s great to see so many fine Irish actors getting such exposure. But I’ve been wondering in recent blog posts (including this one on Roddy Doyle and another on Conor McPherson) whether Irish literature is seen in London not as a national literature (i.e. as writing from Ireland) but as a kind of genre – one that involves music, a rural setting, permissible levels of “floweriness” in speech that would be impossible in Standard English, strong women and weak men, and so on.
It remains to be seen how (if at all) the author and/or director of this adaptation will explain its Irish features, and it remains also to be seen how well it will be received. But it’s interesting to see this adaptation coming at the same time as a new adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments hits London, while Once continues to do well. It’s also notable that in the current Booker longlist, there are three Irish authors, two of whom (Toibin and McCann) are being tipped as potential winners (at least in Ireland, anyway).
So times are good for some Irish playwrights, some Irish actors, and some Irish novelists in London right now. And that can only be a good thing.
The key question though is whether this represents a success for work that is Irish (in the sense of coming from Ireland) or work that seems “Irish” (in the sense of corresponding to a set of characteristics that are seen as such)? Is “Irish theatre” a national dramatic literature or a kind of genre or performance style?
A partial answer to that question may be available when Liolà completes its run. Over on The Guardian, Michael Billington has already reached one conclusion in his review:
I enjoyed the evening but it left me with a question: isn’t it slightly patronising to treat Ireland, as we so often do, as a handy stand-in for any rural community, whether it be in Sicily, Spain or Chekhov’s Russia
Good question. I’d wonder what this says about the representation of the rural within England itself?