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A CurtainUp London London Review
Six Characters in Search of an Author

A character whose story has been told may laugh at death.— Father
Six Characters in Search of an Author
Denise Gough as the StepDaughter, Freya Parker as The Girl
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
In the hands of the elegant director Rupert Goold, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Luigi Pirandello's play about reality and illusion becomes more complex and more layered and more fun. Instead of the original theatrical setting, the opening scene gives us some documentary film makers in a series of dramatised films for television, this particular one about helping a very sick boy commit suicide in Denmark. They are interrupted by the "six characters" demanding that their "real" story be told. This family hijacks the planned film and succeed in relating their family drama.

What happens next makes us question reality and truth as after playing out the story, the Producer, Noma Dumezweni , carrying a dead child wanders off behind the scenes of a neighbouring musical theatre. The final scene is a heated discussion between actors playing the executive producer, Rupert Goold and Ben Power, the "real" director and writer.

Rupert Goold's production has all the design style and impossibility of a surreal painting by Rená Magritte. But it's as though you have walked through an implausible door in that painting, straight into another painting of equal complexity.

When Pirandello's play premiered in Rome in 1921 we are told that fighting broke out between supporters of the playwright and their opponents. At the end, Pirandello and his daughter had to make a hasty retreat by the stage door.

The father and daughter theme is critical to Six Characters. It is the experienced and talented thespian Ian McDiarmid who here plays the dislikeable Father of this dysfunctional family. The mother of his son, his unfaithful wife (Eleanor David) has left him and the step daughter has been fathered by another man as have the other two younger children (Freya Parker and Elliot Horne/Bailey Pepper). The Step Daughter, more than slightly unhinged by her dreadful experience, is played by Denise Gough in an outfit out of the musical Cabaret complete with bowler hat and net black skirt. In fact the family, the characters, appear only in black and white often with dark glasses making it all the more dramatic when anyone gets smeared with blood.

The scene in the Seamstress's shop is replaced by a Milliner's with the lanky and bizarrely wigged John Mackay leaping out of the underneath of the bed like a character from one of Vesturport's productions. You see, the Mother has not been able to sew fast enough so her daughter is asked to sexually entertain male clients to make up the profit shortfall. McDiarmid's character, who has been paedophilically hanging around school gates, gets a giant pair of scissors (again think Shockheaded Peter) and cuts her suspenders and dresses her as a grotesque little girl with her blonde hair in bunches, a puffed sleeved dress and hideous rosy cheeked make up. Part of her derangement and agitation is conveyed as she substitutes one shoe for a skateboard and whizzes around the stage. The Mother discovers her once husband abusing her daughter and operatically flails her arms at him.

Miriam Buether's sets are beautiful. A white office for the initial scene as the media executives discuss the documentary and later inset with the room above the Millinery Shop. A giant fish tank, centre stage with flickering water sees the little girl drown herself in a cleverly staged shocker and the little boy stabs himself so that the Producer needs to carry him to get help through the corridors behind the scenes. There are technical tricks as the noise like video tape being rewound takes us back. The Father asks, "Who are you? What are you? What is truth?" in this exercise in theatrical philosophy.

For me this version of Six Characters in Search of an Author seems to be about how the media represents what it portrays to us and the gap between that portrayal and reality, accounts of which will vary depending on whose story we have. Initially when discussing who should play them, the characters protest at the choice of actors, "You are saying that actors are more real than the real thing?"

We know that Rupert Goold is well on his way to being one of the most acclaimed director of his generation and we are truly amazed when his documentary producer finds herself behind the barricades of the West End show Les Miserables on in the Queen's Theatre next door to the Gielgud where Six Characters is playing. There are plenty of references too to the current plays on London's West End in the fourth and additional act alluding to the various Hamlets about to hit the West End as the writers remind us of the context of their theatrical reality. Goold's production is novel, challenging and disturbing.

Six Characters in Search of an Author
Written by Luigi Pirandello
In a new version by Rupert Goold and Ben Power
Directed by Rupert Goold

Starring: Ian McDiarmid, Denise Gough, Noma Dumezweni, John Mackay
With: Eleanor David, Dyfan Dwyfor, Elliot Horne/Bailey Pepper, Robin Pearce, Jamie Bower, Christine Entwisle, Jake Harders, Jeremy Joyce
Design: Miriam Buether
Lighting: Malcolm Rippeth
Music and Sound: Adam Cork
Video: Lorna Heavey
A Joint Production between Headlong Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre
Running time: Two hours 25 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 482 5130
Booking to 8th November 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th September 2008 performance at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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