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Six Characters in Search of an Author


Sydney Festival presents a co-production between Chichester Festival Theatre and Headlong SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR by Luigi Pirandello in a new version by Rupert Goold & Ben Power in the York Theatre, Seymour Centre.

Written in 1921 and first performed in Rome in the Teatro Valle. “SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR” is a classic of modernism, a fundamentally subversive moment in the history of modern theatre. Its self conscious setting – an open stage prepared for rehearsal (of another Pirandello play THE RULES OF THE GAME) – its fragmented narrative, confusing time levels and radical issues (the details of the family life of The Characters with its disruption, adultery, prostitution, illegitimacy, nudity and potential incest) caused an uproar at its first night… in Rome: supporters of the playwright and their opponents came to blows – at the end Pirandello and his daughter had to leave hastily by the stage door.

“In the original, at the commencement of the rehearsal six characters appear in the theatre and beg the Producer to help them find, with the aid of his acting company, an author for their story. They lament that they have been realised by an author but now abandoned ‘It’s true, I would go, would go and tempt him, time after time, in his gloomy study just as it was growing dark, when he was sitting quietly in an armchair not even bothering to switch a light on but leaving the shadows to fill the room: the shadows were swarming with us, we had come to tempt him.’ To tempt him to write the narrative of these characters. For the Producer to become the Author.” Pirandello “explores the relationship between appearance and reality, the mask and the face, permanence and flux.” “This is the best known of Pirandello’s plays (Henry IV (Enrico IV) another favourite – my favourite), and it still stands, as one of drama’s most original and profound meditations on the nature of the theatrical process.”

Although this production has not resulted in members of the audience engaging in “fisty cuffs” and no one has had to leave hastily by the stage door there has been quite a lot of emotional discussion, for or against the experience.

In this “new version” (Rupert Goold & Ben Power) the characters interrupt the editing discussion in an abandoned suite of rooms, post modernist grunge or reality(?) (Design, Miriam Buether) that are doubling as a “studio” for a documentary drama involving a dying boy selecting to suicide (euthanise) in a clinic in Denmark. (The ephemera of Hamlet and the famous rules of the Dogme films (Lars Von Trier) swim into the mix.) What is real? What is dramatised? The ethical issues of the manipulation of real and re-enacted images to create the video/film becomes central to the events. As clever as all that layering is, on top of what is an already multi-layered original, led to a fairly mind boggling afternoon in the theatre.

Having the opportunity to read this new version it is still a very dense text to decipher, even with the luxury of time which allows re-reads etc. Whatever the relative clarity of the written text may be, and that is relative, the playing in this production, I felt was highly professional, but in this instance, this afternoon, was not detailed enough in its communication skills to elucidate and carry me and most of the audience through the “hoops” of all of the original and new conceits of this new writing. It was a bombast of histrionics that rather distracted us from the finesse of the plotting and arguments and instead defied us to keep up rather than assisting us in becoming clever and comprehending with them of the curiosities of Mr Pirandello, Goold and Power.

Mr Ian McDiarmid as The Father and Ms Denise Gough as The Stepdaughter, although amazingly dazzling in their virtuosic choices were mostly connected only to those and were relatively glib in their primary task of taking the audience with them through this intricate and multi layered puzzle of a production. The other principal role of the Producer played by Catherine McCormack was sometimes technically inaudible and narrow in its emotional range: fraught and then downright panicked, and, so I felt I was often on a disabled ship without compass or life raft on a turbulent ocean of ideas and possibilities. The rest of the company were there in support, and, of them I particularly enjoyed Jake Harders (Cameraman/Theatre Maker) and Robin Pearce (editor).They had a presence and a relationship with us, the audience, they seemed to care that we were there. This production was first given in June 2008 and may have suffered, this afternoon, with the wear of repetition? Some members of the audience found it altogether too much and left in the interval.

Those of us that stayed had a further set of puzzles to contend with, in the second act, but in my personal experience, found a newly invented fourth act, with all of its in-jokes and self referencing, amusing. Would Pirandello have coped with this extrapolation of his text? Since he spent some time of his life attempting to turn his play into a film script and probably would have explored all this realm of the new news media – documentary, given it existed for him, he would, I imagine, enjoyed it. Who is to know?

A version of a famous 1921 classic for a new century in 2010. To quote from an introduction to a 1979 translation of the original by the translator John Linstrum: “Time acts upon a translation in a way that it does not upon the original, so that a translation made a quarter of a century ago might almost be as distant from us as the original itself and in criticising the effectiveness of the play we may find ourselves judging and reacting to a translation and not the work that is translated. The modernisation of a translation is not only acceptable but necessary in order to preserve a sense of the freshness as language itself changes. An original work possesses a natural elasticity of language that allows it to accommodate these changes more easily than a translation which is inevitably limited by attempts to be both lucid and faithful to an original.” Adaptation is important but the extremity of it and still call the play SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR (or HAMLET, HAMLET) seems to have become a bone of contention for some of the audiences. It was not Pirandello (It was not Hamlet) some have lamented.

Like the expectancy that an audience may have had about Fabulous Beast’s production of GISELLE, if you went expecting a faithful rendition of the original (with fond memories of the Rodney Fisher production for the Sydney Theatre Company, years ago) then you were to be disappointed or as some have felt, duped and consequently, outraged. (Mind you there was sufficient information for you to make a considered guess as to what you might experience.)

This production entitled SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR was a new work: “Updated and recontextualised in this vertiginous new version by Rupert Goold & Ben Power, it becomes a dark parable for a media-obsessed age and exhilarating exploration of how we define art, ourselves and ‘reality’ in the twenty-first century.” – so the blurb on the back of the printed playscript goes. The British press were not uncritical of this work and were mostly admiring of the idea of the production but found it wanting or over indulgent in its exploration. Stimulating but over the top: this is the summary of my reaction. I have not made up my mind if it was the text and production or the acting of it on the day I saw it?

The Sydney Festival, curated by Lindy Hume, has provoked argument which I believe ought to be some of its objective. A feast of art that awakens healthy discussion and challenges. Money and time spent on confrontation and growth as well as verification and comfort. This production certainly provoked me to many hours of investigation of my response and that of others. And I have had a great time re-reading the play and this new version and it causes me to call out for a production of Pirandello’s Enrico IV. (I last saw it At The American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and loved it with all of its difficulties – great to see it again, especially with this production still fresh in mind.)

NB Quotes are sourced from the program notes in The Sydney Festival program; the 1979 Methuen translation of SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR by John Linstrum.

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