Luigi Pirandello’s Vestire Gli Ignudi was first performed in 1922 in Rome, the city in which it was set. Howard Colyer’s free translation, Naked, shifts the action from inter-war Italy to 1970s London, but the play’s nihilistic ruminations on identity are still piercingly present in Roberta Zuric’s production at Brockley’s Jack Studio Theatre.
Josephine Rattigan is Ersilia, a destitute housemaid whose failed attempt to commit suicide has attracted the sensationalist press and whose sad, affair-filled tale has intrigued Lewis (Declan Cooke), a grizzled, middle-aged novelist. She returns from the hospital to live with Lewis in his dreary apartment, where a host of characters visit her, each seeing as they wish to see her, defining her as they want her to be defined.
There is the penitent ex-fiancé (Piers Hunt), trying to be the hero saving Ersilia from herself. There is the vivacious, canny journalist (Victoria Hamnett), twisting Ersilia into a character in her scandalous soap-opera story. There is the angry ex-employer (Sam Adamson), willing her to become meek and mild to avoid further damage to his reputation. Even the novelist sees her as little more than the protagonist in his next novel.
Her refusal to accept this relentless pigeon-holing leads her to question her identity and, ultimately, her very existence. “You’re trying to dress me in someone else’s clothes”, she cries. “Perhaps there isn’t even anybody to dress.”
Rattigan’s Ersilia improves as the action progresses. As a timid, ashamed housemaid, she is somewhat wooden, but as her disillusionment grows, her anguish and despair are thoroughly convincing. There is fine work from Cooke as Lewis, capturing a perfect, wandering curiosity. Elsewhere, Hamnett finds a believable harshness as the journalist and Hunt delivers a suitably pompous performance as Frank Last, Ersilia’s philandering former lover.
Athough Colyer’s translation is a little heavy-handed at times, it manages to isolate the piece’s key themes with commendable efficiency. One is forces to consider the multi-faceted nature of human identity and to reflect upon the roles that we all allow ourselves to be cast in, all of which was very much Pirandello’s – and Colyer’s, one imagines – intention. It is sobering, challenging stuff.
Zuric directs with calculated precision, but the interaction on stage rarely feels artificial, and Sarah June Mills’ set – a drab, poorly furnished box of a room with stained walls and grotty windows – lends the piece an appropriate air of decay and despair.
At just 70 minutes long, without an interval, Naked is a relatively brief production for the amount of thought-provoking material it contains. It is a bitesize philosophy lecture, a little pedestrian at times, but delivered with confidence and competence.
Naked is playing the Jack Studio Theatre until 30 January. For more information and tickets, see Brockley Jack website.