The premiere of Pirandello’s seminal Six Characters in Search of an Author was received with disgust by many of the audience members in Rome, 1921. Consequentially, Pirandello was forced to depart the theatre discreetly through a side exit to avoid the onslaught of furious audience members. Almost a century later, and audiences are more accustomed to the experimental traits of Absurdist theatre. This in itself alludes to the importance of Pirandello as a theatrical visionary, and his subsequent influences upon twentieth century theatre.
The Theatre de la Ville-Paris boasts its evocative production of ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ for just three days this February. Last year the company brought Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros to the Barbican; thus, these two plays demonstrate the company’s ambitious agendas in engaging with the challenges of staging these pivotal works of twentieth century experimental theatre. In this powerful production, director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mata arouses the feelings of shock, cruelty, humour and bewilderment, which the play still evokes today.
Six Characters in Search of an Author begins with a group of actors rehearsing for another Pirandello play, The Rules of the Game. Their clumsy rehearsal is littered with slapstick errors under the penetrative gaze of the dictatorial director. Abruptly, the rehearsal is interrupted with the arrival of six characters, announcing that they need a new author to finish their tragic tale. The six characters consist of a struggling family unit, with the irrationally compelling father, played passionately by Hugues Quester at its head. The characters have been deserted by their author and creator, and so, demand that their story is finished. Demarcy-Mata explains:‘Theatre must be at their service- sucked in by their existence, their incompleteness, by their violent drama that is not even expressed. A tragedy that must be rehearsed to exist’.
The characters are confined to a state of purgatorial flux until their tale reaches its conclusion. Their story is a melodramatic tragedy, consisting of a family breakdown and a moment of horrifying incest between father and stepdaughter. Traumatised by their story so far, the stage offers the location to recuperate their story, their reasons for existence in an attempt to reach some form of closure.
Melanie Dashwood’s performance of the stepdaughter is compelling and captures the ferocious impact the story has made upon the characters. The characters spring into life as they re-enact their story to the observing cast. The stage is rapidly transformed from a rehearsal scene accompanied by a seamstress making costumes into a squalid brothel, portraying the incestuous scene. This scene in particular strengthens feelings of cruel humour in the production. The re-enactment of the scene represents the father wishing to cleanse himself of the guilt of incest. The scene highlights a comic paradox between the cast of actors who attempt to shadow and mimic the scene as re-enacted by the father and stepdaughter. Their reproduction is clumsy, staged, polarising them from the six characters’ original story.
This dizzying production layers Pirandello’s narratives and characters upon one another very effectively, and the lighting (Yves Collet) projects the six characters as colossal shadows onto a white screen which dominates the stage at times. These shadows serve as an isolating dramatic metaphor for the plight of the six characters in the play. In some ways they have fulfilled their wishes, as they have discovered an author and a cast willing to assist them in completing their story. However, as their shadows falteringly dominate the curtain, the audience is reminded of their desolation. They have found a stage, but the failures to capture and portray there is stifling.
As the story progresses, Demarcy-Mata’s disorientating production reaches Pirandello’s ambiguous ending. After all of the articulately directed chaos, it leaves the audience wondering whether the six characters are moving closer and closer to, or further and further away from, an agonising conclusion to their tragic story.