The Mountain Giants

Wed 31st October – Sat 3rd November 2012


Catherine Coffey

at 23:23 on 31st Oct 2012



Several minutes before the opening scene of Ionian Productions’ performance of a new translation of Pirandello’s The Mountain Giants the pleasant hum of a waiting audience was silenced by the simple but effective use of a spotlight to imitate the setting sun. In the introduction to this staging of her new translation of the lesser-known Pirandello play, Julia Caterina Hartley expresses her aim as “that of being faithful to the original”, affirming that “set, costumes, music and lighting were all created following Pirandello’s stage directions”. All of the above were definitely exemplary, particularly for a student production, with very good use being made of the Keble O’Reilly’s stage. The play is, however, a decidedly challenging work, and not only due to the fact that Pirandello died before its completion; the challenge of the piece exerted itself upon both actors and audience throughout.

During the first half of the performance the cast presented us with the three acts written by Pirandello’s own hand. The Pirandellian obsession with the divide between actor and character, the real and the unreal, although not as evident as in a work such as Six Characters in Search of an Author, clearly remains a key preoccupation of the play and it was therefore amusing to note that, initially, the cast members in the ‘Countess’ company’ generally performed their “background acting” in a more convincing manner than that of the “real” Scalognati.

Diamente and Battaglia, played by Charlotte Norton and Olivia Madin, were particularly notable throughout for their constant engagement with the task in hand. With Pirandello, however, confusion between different levels of reality is to be expected, so perhaps the Scalognati’s occasionally less-involved manner aimed to reflect this.

Certain members of the Scalognati half of the cast do, however, merit a special mention, Ben Currie and Rhiannon Kelly bringing a thoroughly entertaining, pantomime-like vigour to their respective roles of Quaquèo and Sgricia. Their ringleader, the so-called magician, Cotrone, played by Sam Young took this vigour to a higher level while reducing the sense of caricature in his impressive portrayal of the character described by Hartley as “a mouthpiece for a complex discourse on the human imagination”. Young displayed talent in vocal expression as well as both facial and physical gesture, and also made good use of space on the stage, something which, it must be said, the cast generally did well overall.

Catherine Haines’ Countess was not quite a match for the exuberance of Cortone, not that her character is directly comparable, however, in spite of an occasionally stilted nature (and again, this could all be part of Pirandello’s grand plan), her performance of the practically manic Countess was admirable. The question remains as to whether the almost entirely deadpan nature of her husband, the Count, played by Moritz Borrmann, was an intended foil to her instability or simply a lack of verve on the part of the actor.

Borrmann’s acting did seem, however, to come significantly more alive during the second half, consisting of a new act written by Hartley. A change was certainly evident, swearing and lines such as “it creeps me out” being inserted right from the offset. Although an interesting and obviously thoughtfully-written finale to the play, in which Cortone’s role as mouthpiece was expertly exploited, I could not help but feel a furious disappointment in the choice of what appeared to be caricatures of figures from The Only Way is Essex to embody the “bestial” giants. The very end of the play caused quite some confusion: was it the end? What had happened to the characters? Where they dead? Had they gone back to Cortone’s villa? It is difficult to answer any of these questions but this seems quite in line with the Pirandellian spirit.

Overall I was favourably impressed by the level to which this group of student actors had brought this new production of a recognisably challenging play from a recognisably challenging playwright. I would still take umbrage with the choice of characterisation for the eponymous giants, and feel that certain actors may need to concentrate on a cleaner performance of their roles, but this is something which I am sure they can and will achieve over the course of the next few nights.


Thomas Stell

at 03:30 on 1st Nov 2012



A few years before his death, Pirandello began his last play, The Mountain Giants. It was to be, I am told by this version’s translator, his most complete manifesto for drama, its qualities and its place in society. He never finished it; perhaps he could not bring himself to because of the nature and great importance of such an undertaking.

It is a fairy-tale play, about a company of actors led by a count and his actress wife, and their arrival among the Scalognati. These latter are an assembly of grotesques – a dwarf, a magician, an old woman who believes herself to be dead, who live in a villa where the creatures of one’s imagination become real, made so by Cotrone the conjuror’s doing that seems half real magic and half stage magic. Puppets move with no puppeteers, a young actor may seem a poet who died for love, an angel (and who knows whether he is real or not?) may lead through the country a hundred and one souls from Purgatory. The company, forlorn and less than half the number they used to be, are to act in the town nearby for the Mountain Giants, a people so called because of their size and the apparent awe the Scalognati hold them in.

This is an ambiguous work of advocacy for the life lived closer to the surreal, or a state where the Romantic imagination has conquered reason, where “our wishes [are] expressed by our eyes themselves”. It is a treatise on the making of art, poets who “give coherence to dreams”, and it is the instruction for actors: “learn from children who invent the game...and live it as if it were real”. In the last respect we may find it too explicatory, too much like an essay on stage, but as for the rest it is admirably done. The play is itself the imagined existence it describes, in its rarefied, enigmatic prose (“at dawn we see into the future; at dusk into the past”) and in its sunset where a vision is narrated, or in the striking apparition of the eerie Magdalen, the red lady.

From his performers Pirandello asks a style where it is clear an actor is an actor as well as the character he plays. In this production the performances were not remarkable, but never got in the way of one’s appreciation of the script. The tragic actress and countess Ilse (Catherine Haines) was correctly melodramatic. You cannot tell what are her own feelings and what those of a part she is playing, and neither indeed can she. Cotrone, by whom most of the philosophical lines are said, (Sam Young) is supposed to be a caricature, rather manic and often excited in his movements, but is perhaps over-done. Some of his exclamations and facial contortions are too self-conscious not to be ham. Sgriccia, the old woman, (Rhiannon Kelly) could be played with a less strained voice; as it is the young actress seems to try too hard to suggest age. Particular mention however should be made of the set, painted wooden flats for a mountain background and the villa’s facade. The bright colours are, rightly, almost pantomime.

Julia Hartley, director and translator, provided an ending for the play. Apparently some productions have stopped where Pirandello’s writing stops, at the end of the third act (there are four). Here the fourth act was the performance for the Mountain Giants. These we find are drunken and uncivilised; they violently overcome the actors, defenceless, who are beaten up without even a proper fight and the play ends (the whole play that is, not just the play within a play). It is a very appropriate shock of the cruel; I saw in it a horrid exposition of the ordinary man’s incapacity to understand art, the inevitable humiliation and suffering of the artist. But there is nothing indulgent about it, and coming at the end of such a dream like play, and with the grandly named Giants turning out to be who they are, one could say it was grimly arch.

We had been told to believe in a beautiful, hallucinatory world, but now it has been destroyed without even being able to resist, no heroic last stand. It is very Pirandello.



Declan Clowry; 1st Nov 2012; 17:53:16

Just a couple of notes for Catherine: The second half of the play was not written by Julia, only the final part, act IV, which takes place in front of a closed red curtain, is new. The part before, "it creeps me out" and all, is Pirandello's. Also, I happen to be from Essex, which may explain why my portrayal of Lopardo reminded you so much of said dodgy reality TV show.

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