Six Characters in Search of an Author
The play, by Luigi Pirandello, was first performed in Rome in 1921. It opens with an acting company preparing to rehearse a play. As the actors prepare themselves for the rehearsal they are interrupted by the arrival of six strange people. The Manager of the play, annoyed by the interruption, demands an explanation. The Father reveals himself and his family as unfinished characters in search of an author to complete their story. The Manager initially believes them to be mad, but as they argue amongst themselves, revealing details of their story, he begins to listen. Eventually he agrees to stage their story despite the disbelief amongst his jeering actors.
Pirandello is quoted as saying:
I think that life is a very sad piece of buffoonery; because we have in ourselves, without being able to know why, wherefore or whence, the need to deceive ourselves constantly by creating a reality (one for each and never the same for all), which from time to time is discovered to be vain and illusory . . . My art is full of bitter compassion for all those who deceive themselves; but this compassion cannot fail to be followed by the ferocious derision of destiny which condemns man to deception.
Last week we managed to see a performance of Six Characters in Search of an Author at Shaftesbury Avenue’s tiny gem of a theatre, The Gielgud. The production was a new version directed by Rupert Goold and starring Ian McDiarmid as the Father, Eleanor David as the Mother and Denise Gough (pictured) turning in a riveting performance as the Step-Daughter.
I suppose the idea was to bring the play up-to-date for a modern audience. Rupert Goold is strong on ideas and responsible for some wonderful productions, but sometimes goes too far. This is one of those times. He and his co-producer, Ben Power have tinkered with the script, replacing Pirandello’s original reference to a theatre production with a tv crew working in Denmark on a documentary about the assisted suicide of a young boy. There are several oblique and overt references to Hamlet, which must have been fun in rehearsals, but don’t really work in the play as such.
In fact, what really works in this production are the parts of the original script, and the ‘new’ frame in which it is wrapped serves only as an irritant to an audience who thinks they are about to engage with the typical Pirandellian contrast between art, which is unchanging, and life, which is an inconstant flux.
That said, the play is not without its moments, and comes to a clashing theatrical climax at the end of act 2 when the Mother discovers the Father in sexual congress with the Stepdaughter in the brothel. The scene transforms into a mini opera as first the Mother, then the others convey their shock, outrage, guilt and shame in a series of staggered exhortations, short of intelligent words but strong on gutteral sounds, harmonics and counterpoint which almost literally sends the audience into shock. I watched them filing out when the curtain came down and most of them still had their mouths open.
Unfortunately, act 3 is disappointing as Goold’s imagination gets the better of him, the stage manager has some kind of nervous breakdown and wanders around backstage, while we follow with the aid of a camera. Pirandello himself is walked on, and there’s some more Hamlet nonsense.
When it is good, it is very good, this production, and when it is bad it almost puts you to sleep. I’d love to recommend it, but I can’t.