The Theatreguide.London Review
Characters in Search of an Author
This very free adaptation by Rupert Goold and Ben Power of Luigi Pirandello's classic has moments of theatrical excitement and intellectual stimulation. But it goes on too long, becoming so enamoured of its own inventiveness that the play and the audience are likely to be left behind.
In Pirandello's 1921 play some actors in a rehearsal room are interrupted by a family group who claim they are fictional characters brought to life but then abandoned by their author. They can only be fulfilled if the actors perform their story, but then face the paradox that the re-enactment will inevitably vary from their ideal image, so their truth can only be told through falsification. (The story they want to tell has a soap opera quality but is the primary source of emotional involvement in this rather intellectual play.)
Goold and Power have updated the context, writing a wholly new frame story about documentary film makers wrestling with how much reconstruction and fictionalising they can - or, perhaps, must - use to convey the truth they want to tell. So Pirandello's central themes are introduced much earlier, in terms a contemporary audience can clearly understand.
This is both a plus and a minus because, having made the point so clearly, the adapters have made Pirandello's part of the play somewhat redundant. When the six characters enter, convince the film-makers to tell their story, and then discover that the reality they know can't be recreated precisely, the play is just repeating something it has already told us.
(Actually, despite the characters' claim that they are fictional, this whole sequence plays like the uncomfortable experience of real people discovering that any journalists trying to tell their story will inevitably falsify it.)
So the first half of the play, while it does serve Pirandello's vision, has the quality of over-explaining and repeating itself. Things go even further astray in the second act. Here one of Pirandello's other central themes comes to the fore, as the characters insist that, by being fixed and eternal products of art, they are more 'real' and 'true' than the transitory and imperfect reality of the outside world.
Pirandello limited this to debate between the characters and the frame figures, but Goold and Power present it theatrically by playing with our assumptions about what is real on stage. The frame story of the film makers, which up to now we have accepted as 'reality,' is put in a frame of its own, part of a larger film about film makers. And then that is put in another frame (a play about the making of a film about the making of another film), and then that is put in another frame.
OK! We get the point! you are likely to cry silently at some stage. Once you start fiddling with definitions of what is real, nothing remains solid anymore.
That is a legitimate extension of Pirandello's concept, but you can't help feeling that the adapters have left Pirandello behind. They're not serving his ideas - they're showing off how inventive they can be.
By the time one figure from the documentary plot, trapped somewhere between all these levels of reality, wanders offstage and a video screen shows her moving through the lobby of this very theatre (and, in a really pointless sight gag, on to the stage of the theatre next door), the evening has stopped being about Pirandello and is a celebration by Goold and Power of the cleverness of Goold and Power.
As director, Rupert Goold keeps things moving and, until things get just too silly toward the end, keeps the various levels of reality separate and clear. And, until they are buried under repetition and filigree, Pirandello's ideas do come through. The problem is not lack of theatrical imagination, but excess of it.
The dominant figure in the text is the father of the six characters family, and Ian McDiarmid gives a powerful performance, whether debating the theoretical issues or depicting the torment of being eternally trapped in a painful and unresolved plot moment. Denise Gough is a bit too shrill and one-note as the stepdaughter who is his adversary in their story.
It is no harsh criticism to say that Goold and Power are not as great writers as Pirandello, so their original sections are comparatively thin and Noma Dumezweni really can't make the documentary film maker as alive and real as Pirandello's characters. It is a legitimate criticism that Goold has directed everyone else to play their already thin characters as clichés and stereotypes.
Return to Theatreguide.London home page.
Review - Six Characters In Search Of An Author - Gielgud 2008