Stark Naked at the Jack Studio Theatre
Review by Michael Subialka
Framed by two suicides, the action in Naked captures the typically Pirandellian feeling of being trapped in one’s own life, a life that is defined by the way in which others see us. The young protagonist, Ersilia Drei, is at the center of the usual sort of love triangle and pays a hefty psychological toll for her willingness to flaunt the sexual mores and gender norms of her society (Italy of the early 1920s in Pirandello’s play, 1970s London in Howard Colyer’s adaptation). But what is really shocking for the audience is not the melodramatic story of romance or the sordid details of the love triangle; instead, what is poignant here is the realization that what Ersilia has really discovered is the deep emptiness of her life.
The play’s main metaphor is obviously nakedness. In Pirandello’s title, Vestire gli ignudi, the reference is to the Biblical clothing of the naked, whereas this adaptation cuts the Biblical reference to focus more directly on the bare reality at the play’s core. In an interview with Lisa Tagliaferri, Colyer explains his choice of title as an effort to appeal to audiences by making it sexy. But by the end of the play (in which, I’m afraid I must report, no one removes their clothes), it is clear that nakedness has a much darker connotation, one that Colyer relates to nihilism in the introduction to his new adaptation.
In the play’s backstory, Ersilia is driven to end her life by the sudden realization that her existence is purposeless and insignificant. At the end of the play, after having attempted to “put on the clothes” offered to her by others (by assuming the role of the suffering lover), she returns again to this suicidal impulse. Those clothes don’t fit, and her life, at its core, still seems to be something out of her control, insignificant, and purposeless.
What is interesting about this bleak vision of life adrift in the void is how Colyer’s adaptation and director Roberta Zuric’s staging of the play take the malaise of a different cultural moment and make it available to us today. Two particular staging effects help transport the play’s sense of crisis from the 1920s into the present, or at least a more recent past. First, the play is set in the 1970s, using punk music to create a link between one moment of war-fueled cultural exhaustion and another. It opens with the 1979 post-punk track “London Calling,” a testament to a nuclear era of loss. This backdrop re-emerges at moments throughout the play when noise from the large window at the center of the grimy, downtrodden scene brings the chaotic city to the fore.
Ersilia (Josephine Rattigan) and Lewis (Declan Cooke) on set in Naked. Photo by Tim Stubbs Hughes.
Second, the staging makes effective use of lighting to create a sense of isolation and to highlight moments of reflection and passionate despair. These effects are often punctuated with quick musical interruptions and help to isolate a character in a kind of freeze-frame spotlight. They also use sharp angles to cast long shadows from the sides. In this respect, the production resonats with the recent, large-scale mounting of Pirandello’s most well-known play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, which was taken on a global tour by French director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota and appeared at London’s Barbican Theatre just about a year before Naked took the stage at the Jack Studio Theatre. In Demarcy-Mota’s rendition of that modernist classic, similar lighting effects created a spectral, haunting atmosphere that also highlighted the magical powers of theatrical illusion.
Six Characters in Search of an Author. Théâtre de la Ville. Ensemble. Photo by J.L. Fernandez
In Naked, these effects are put to a different use, not creating a sense of magic or illusion but rather offering a stark look at the wounded and shattering inner realities of the characters, which come through brilliantly thanks to the strong acting not only of Josephine Rattigan (Ersilia) but also of the entire cast.
The layers of imagination are peeled back, and at their core we find these characters naked, shivering, alone.
Naked, 12th – 30th January 2016 at the Jack Studio Theatre
Howard Colyer (adaptation)
Roberta Zuric (director)
Josephine Rattigan as Ersilia Drei
Declan Cooke as Lewis Nota
Jean Apps as Mrs Hood
Victoria Hamnett as Francesca Cantavalle
Piers Hunt as Frank Last
Sam Adamson as Mr Grant Bordeaux