There are stranger ways to spend a Sunday morning than in a lecture room off Tom Quad, trying to immerse myself in a world of giants and dwarves, magicians and maniacs. Julia Hartley is directing her own translation of Pirandello’s Mountain Giants, a play that combines the more twisted elements of Psychoville with fairytale motifs and a gratifying poetic lustre. The plot involves a countess whose late husband wrote a play that she becomes obsessive about performing, resulting in her theatre troupe inexplicably ending up in a mysterious villa. A weird magician lives there amongst other odd figures, and he persuades them to stay.
The translation itself is excellent: it flows well and is engaging, a very impressive feat that speaks well for a play that is little-known in the UK (it doesn’t even have an English Wikipedia entry!)
Since the play deals with elements of the supernatural, with music, with the mise en abyme trope and since this was only a rehearsal (with quite a while before it is due to be performed) there was a rather large dose of imagination required. But the acting itself wass solid, and depth of characterisation improved even within the rehearsal. Hartley, directing the production as well as adapting, asked some probing questions about motivation and emotion and the cast responded well. One actor who particuarly stood out was Catherine Baines a glint of obsession in her eye as she portrayed the bereaved Countess losing her grip on reality. Another delight was Sam Young’s Cotrone, the magician who explored Willy Wonka-esque madness: his expansive, energetic actions and playful manner masking some kind of insanity. Even the brief open rehearsal raised questions on this mysterious character: ‘why does he harbour these social outcasts?’ and ‘Does he seek some kind of perverse dominance over them?’
Amid the more grotesque and fantastical themes of the play nests an interesting reflection on human sanity. With a bit of polish, this could (and should) be a chilling piece of theatre. But the whole thing is, naturally, a little rudimentary at the moment. While a couple of the actors were working out a tune on the guitar, others were discussing the use of puppets: there will be, it seems, a great deal of theatrical accoutrement to bring this production to life. They do have a long way to go yet, but I think that this will be something special. Batty, twisted, unusual but, thankfully, something inventive, daring and different from the standard theatrical student fare.