For a writer who died in 1936, Pirandello still feels remarkably contemporary. In the short plays, like the newly revived The Man With the Flower in His Mouth, he hones in on emerging details of the twentieth century experience which still pattern our lives today. A woman narrowly misses the sliding doors of a train, while shopping for her family, so she decides to stay up all night in a 24 hour café until the first morning train. When she’s joined by a colourful stranger, almost a pearly king in his badges, shreds and patches, she complains to him about the frustrations of family holidays in hotels, but he’s obsessed by smaller details in the world : the universal cabal of shop assistants, with their secret to perfect gift wrapping ; the smell of doctor’s waiting rooms ; the infinite variety of strangers’ houses in their urban rows. But as his stories get darker, and his behaviour more erratic, he begins to make the traveller nervous.
Metta Theatre is a company I’ve admired for a few years now, and this delightful production is another reminder that this is a company to watch. Metta, “making theatre that wears its theatricality on its sleeve”, has a strong background in puppetry and circus skills, and such training is apparent in the charismatic, mime-like physicality of Samuel Collings as The Man. Collings is captivating, dangerously spontaneous, and infectious with energy. Beside him, Liana Weafer’s performance is a remarkable combination of world-weariness and childlike fascination. The piece has been performed in all kinds of places – the BBC in 1930 performed it in a rudimentary studio as the first ever BBC TV drama – but director Poppy Burton-Morgan has staged the play in one of Greenwich’s newer cafés, The London Particular, adroitly maintaining the tension between the dark street outside and the supposed safety of the warm café, a tension deepened by the contrast between the realism of the setting and the surrealism always threatening to erupt. She has updated the setting to London, and slimmed down the discussion of class politics, but the contemporary feel is entirely true to Pirandello’s farsighted text. Her most daring change is the switch of gender in two of the characters, but as the reasons behind The Man’s frenetic zeal become clear, the new sexual politics emerge as a smart way to translate Pirandello’s dissection of the disease of being human into our contemporary vocabulary. The production could use more structure, but Weafer and Collings breathe life into every snatch of text, thanks in part to the rich yet subtle symbolic vocabulary of gesture created under Burton-Morgan’s direction. And it is propelled forward by the mystery of Collings’ powerful performance of this utterly alien Man– although it’s only at the end of a fraught fifty minutes that we finally learn which kingdom has issued him his strange passport.