Pirandello, Irish Dramatist?

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?


5 thoughts on “Pirandello, Irish Dramatist?

  1. As a Ph.D. student whose main concern over the last few years has been to research connections between Pirandello and Irish theatre and culture, I obviously welcome this production, as it seems to show on stage parts of what drew me to write my Ph.D. thesis in the first place. To answer a few of the questions you raise, here’s my understanding of this new production (which has already premiered at the Lyttelton Theatre on the 7 August after a week of previews).

    From what she told me in our conversations about this new version, Tanya Ronder, immediately decided NOT to write this version for English-sounding actors, quite right in my opinion, as I find that Pirandello’s language loses half its meaning as well as its peculiar sound when translated in standard British English. In fact if I had to make a choice, particularly translating his Sicilian plays, I would choose another accent or vernacular. Also I find that the Irish accent as well as the style of Irish actors suits better the translation of Pirandello’s plays, particularly to transpose his concept of humour (which according to Pirandello comprises of a shift from the “perception of the opposite” to the “feeling of the opposite”, which often reminds me of Irish people’s dark humour), as well as the musicality inherent in both languages (yes, I would call Pirandello’s Sicilian a language in its own right, as Pirandello was proficient in its grammar, written and spoken qualities).

    That’s why I think Richard Eyre knew that the play could work in this way. After Eyre and Ronder workshopped the play with a group of Irish actors and found that “they brought the language to life beautifully”, Ronder wrote the next drafts of the play with their voices in mind. However, she was also aware of not being an Irish writer, and the point was not to transpose the play to Ireland, the play is still set in Sicily. They simply borrowed the actors’ accent in order to give the text a particular flavour when spoken.

    As she puts it in the programme note of the production (which serves as Introduction to the volume published by NHB): “Richard Eyre knew immediately that he wanted to cast the play with Irish actors for the premiere production at the NT. Not to transplant the play to Ireland, but to give us the sound of a forgotten community somewhere on the West coast while still placing it in rural Sicily. Besides the transferable characteristics, the Irishness gave us the earth, heart and tongue which would be all but buried in an English counterpart.”

    As to the historical context, yes the play was written in the summer of 1916, when in Sicily emigration and war drove most of the men out of their homes and their region in search of better jobs and lives and to fight for a country that often forgot the people that lived in the countryside and whose lives had to go on despite the war raging in Italy and Europe (Pirandello was fully aware of this situation since in 1915 his son Stefano joined the war effort and was captured by the Austrians). Thus in the play there only two men left, Liola’ who loved his own livelihood, but who also stayed to raise and take care of his children, and Simone, too old and too greedy for the war, in the midst of a plethora of strong-willed women “working, talking, getting by as best they can” (sounds familiar?).

    These are some of the reasons why I can’t wait to see the play on stage and hope it will deliver all that it promises for me on paper…



    • Thanks Monica. All of that is great info. Her comment that “the Irishness gave us the earth, heart and tongue which would be all but buried in an English counterpart” is very telling I think. Would be glad to find out more of your views on this if/when you see it. Thanks also for the correction about its opening date. I’ve edited my post to reflect that.


  2. I recall when Toby Frow was casting last year’s Globe Theatre production of The Taming of the Screw and he cast Waterford actor Jamie Beamish as Tranio and wanted the Servant part to be Oirish and the Master in posher English. It was a genre thing rather than any concept issue.


  3. Thanks Patrick, I had a look at the text already and we can certainly talk more about it in the next few months… (I’m going to see it in November during ISTR weekend). I’m also very interested in your and other Irish people’s opinion, especially since I’ve already heard of some great performances from Eileen Walsh and Rory Keenan…


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