By Matthew Hilborn
When Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author premiered at Teatro Valle in Rome in 1921, the reception was decidedly mixed. However, I am pleased to report that the verdict on Fortnight Theatre’s production was markedly more positive (!). Despite a smattering of moments when the cast spoke over one another and got in each other’s way on stage, overall this was a polished, poignant display of real talent.
Pirandello’s play is about the nature of theatre and the emotional agony of meta-theatrical trickiness. Six characters, whose author has abandoned them mid-process, turn up at a rehearsal and ask that their own drama be played by that set of practising actors. A dark, absurdist drama ensues that pushes the characters to find an author and thus become ‘real’ – perhaps all too real. As the characters complain that the actors representing them will never be sufficiently alike so as to achieve verisimilitude, Pirandello expertly problematizes notions of reliable representation, aesthetic craft, and fixed authorship.
This is a play, therefore that sets constant traps for any critic, because clear definitions of ‘actor’, ‘director’, ‘audience’, and ‘stage’ are doggedly denied at every turn. As such, there is a deep irony in my praising Pénélope Hervouet and Anna Greenall for some masterful directing, for this is a play that sets out to ridicule directorial ego. But they are worthy of acclaim: their production deftly conveys the anguish of a set of characters whose search for ultimate meaning is continually frustrated.
The most impressive acting performance was undoubtedly from Korede Solomon, who played The Father with a poise and grace rarely seen in student theatre. At times he threatened to run away with the play – both literally and figuratively – such was his command on stage, and his more tender moments were intensely moving.
Ry Lo’s set design is decidedly worthy of credit. His decision to position the spotlights directly behind the audience ensured that the stage played host to a game of shadows, with silhouettes of the spectators’ heads visibly flickering onstage. As the audience’s faceless, jet-black outlines swayed and shifted from side to side, the play’s inherent gloom and ominous oppression was – quite deliberately – too close for comfort. Audience reaction and participation became an integral part of the performance, and the lines between fact and fiction were discomfortingly blurred. Similarly effective was the large wooden circle, which dangled precariously from a couple of lines of rope, at centre-stage from start to finish. This remained a poignant symbol of the characters’ lives; their entire world, at once fenced in and deeply oppressive, likewise hangs by the thinnest of threads.
What this production emphasises most effectively is the sheer ludicrousness of the theatrical enterprise. Acting is, in a sense, the most absurd of pursuits: we don clothing and pretend to be a different figure for the two hours’ traffic of our stage, and then come out of that ‘character’ to return to our regular lives. Six Characters asks why anyone would write drama in the first place, for in so doing one inevitably relinquishes full control over one’s own words, putting the success of each and every production down to the erratic abilities of other, fallible human beings. As the second act of this play dramatizes live on stage, two actors may interpret the same role in vastly different ways. And yet what is most impressive about this production is its unfailing ability to wrench authentic emotion out of something so unabashedly artificial. The play hides its essential significance under seemingly endless layers; however, beneath the knotty façade and the flaunting of artifice, co-producers Mary Wang and Ry Lo challenge the audience to find the truth at its centre.
And yet, I was a little disappointed that the humour so crucial to Pirandello’s production did not come across as often. Perhaps, nearly a century after the play was written, audiences are too accustomed to the boundless surfaces and unending Chinese boxes of postmodern authors such as Pynchon and Barth. The play is rarely revived nowadays, and some of the language feels a little old-fashioned; in the opening act especially, the lines were delivered quite sluggishly, with almost too much care and attention. This play, when slowed down as much as Fortnight Theatre elected to present it, becomes grimly sardonic, painfully torturous, and unbearably sad. Whilst this is, of course, a play about unfinished characters who share the burden of a tragic backstory characterised by near-incest and suicide, I couldn’t help but feel that the dark humour of Pirandello’s text might have aided the bizarreness of the production.
Occasionally the play bites off more than it can chew, revelling a little too much in its meta-theatrical fireworks. Six Characters has an in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it contempt in its bloodstream, and the zaniness is high-pitched and unrelenting from beginning to end. As The Manager says to The Son in the Act 3, “You get over the mark occasionally, my dear sir, if I may say so.” The play is guilty of just that, and Pirandello tries (to paraphrase Henry James, on George Eliot) to say too many things, and to say them too well.
Then again, the original audience had similar reservations, and even rioted as a result. Indeed, however trying the language can become, and however stilted the delivery of some of the more highbrow lines, this production insists upon itself, forcing an audience to implicate themselves in its proceedings. At its end, the coin never really lands, forever spinning in the air. As The Manager and The Father debate at its denouement, is this ‘Pretence’, ‘Reality’, or a ‘whole day’ lost? Perhaps T. S. Eliot put it best: ‘human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.’
‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ will be performed in Fountain’s Hall, Grey College from Thursday, 16th February until Saturday, 18th February at 19:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Fortnight Theatre