The Theatreguide.London Review
When I was at university, back during the Punic Wars, the favourite buzz words in literary study were ambiguity and illusion v. reality. So of course we loved Pirandello. Writing mainly in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, the Italian playwright specialised in blurring the lines between true and false, and indeed denying the possibility of discerning between them.
'Absolutely! (perhaps)' is adaptor Martin Sherman's title for a play you may know as 'Right You Are (If You Think You Are)' or 'It Is So (If You Think So)'. When a new family moves into town, gossipy neighbours are fascinated by the puzzle of their relationships. Is the old lady the wife's mother? Is she, as the husband explains, the mother of his first wife, unable to cope with her daughter's death and deluded that his second wife is her daughter? Or, in the mother's version, is it the husband who is deluded, convinced that her daughter died and this woman is his second wife?
The more the locals swing back and forth between individually convincing but mutually exclusive stories, the more Pirandello ridicules their butting into a private arrangement that works for the participants, whatever the truth is, and the more he implies that we can never really be certain of the whole truth about anything.
Martin Sherman has updated the play to the present, with a nicely colloquial sound, and director-designer Franco Zeffirelli - Posters call this FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI'S production of ABSOLUTELY! (PERHAPS), with the two middle words in the smallest possible print, the same size as Pirandello's name - matches this by turning Pirandello's villagers into a very upmarket urban crew.
An unpleasant result is that what might originally have played as the comic curiosity of small town people with nothing else to do now takes on a darker tinge of snobbery among people who really have no business butting into the affairs of their new neighbours.
The play is being presented as a star vehicle for Joan Plowright as the actual-or-supposed mother-in-law, and as always Plowright is the best thing in the show, giving her character a naturalness that makes almost everyone else in the cast look stylized and artificial.
But Plowright is in fact onstage for only three short scenes, and the real starring role belongs to the one cynic among the neighbours, continually ridiculing their obsession with pinning down a truth he recognises as unattainable. Oliver Ford Davies has a lot of fun with the part, luring us into his bemusement with a wink and a nod, as if to say with Puck, 'What fools these mortals be'.
The rest of the cast, which includes Darrell D'Silva, Barry Stanton, Liza Tarbuck and Anna Carteret, have clearly all been directed to play their characters as broad cartoons, and are thus more comical than real.
It may be that Pirandello's appearance-reality games, revolutionary 80 years ago, have been so absorbed into our culture ( In a nice irony, I had to walk past the British premiere of the latest Matrix film to get to the theatre) that they can no longer be as startling or thought-provoking as they once were. This show plays more like light comedy than theatre-of-ideas, and on that level and with Joan Plowright's brief visits onstage, it can be harmlessly diverting.
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Review - Absolutely! (Perhaps) - Wyndham's 2003