Tuesday 19 January 2010

On Six Characters in Search of an Author @ The Seymour Centre

Is it always true in the theatre that the amount of praise heaped on a production is in inverse proportion to its quality? Liugi Pirandello's 'Six Characters in Search of an Author' is a a play about the intellectual conceit of drama, the alchemical nature of creativity and the truth of fictional creations. It is also a touchstone for modernist theatre, a play about the nature of the play. Given these themes it's deeply disappointing to find that Headlong Theatre's adaptation, which is playing as a part of the Sydney Festival, is a glib and self referential play about documentary television.

The first fifteen minutes of the play are excruciating. We are introduced to a sparse room populated with projectors and plasma screens, decorated with the rough blue carpet tile that's theatrical code for 'drab office'. We enter a post-production screening and debate between a producer, Ian Pace, and a director, Catherine McCormack. It's small, it's petty and it's not terribly convincing. What it does do is a set the tone for the naturalistic parts of the play, packed with in-jokes and overly pleased with itself. This attempt to recontextualize the play into the world of the media industries is deeply clumsy. It introduces a crashingly literal parallel story, that of a young English boy's trip to a Danish euthanasia clinic (that's 'Denmark'... where 'Hamlet' is set... where you get to see footage of a road sign to Elsinore in case you missed it). The problem of truth and film is hardly a new one. Eisenstein, Kurosawa and Godard all knew it was problematic, long before Spike Jonze and Charlie Kauffman made it their subject, exploring the formal tendency toward a single point of view. The problem with applying this to the theatre is it is a different medium, ritualised and formalised, its tricks so transparent that we can't help but know we're watching a fiction.

The tone of the play changes, naturally enough, with the arrival of six archetypal characters, dressed in faintly anachronistic mourning clothes. Pirandello's characters, lost and floating free without an author's hand, rescue the play. They are a striking group Ian McDiarmid as the Father in a three piece suit is the picture of stuffy respectability and Eleanor David's mother might be a 1960's Medea. All seem a little bit off. The two young women on stage are the prefect illustration, Denise Gough is the stepdaughter, part circus clown, part nymphette she might be one of Picasso's saltimbanques next to her is the brooding presence of a girl in a white dress, she has the clothes and the feel of a child murderer in a Southern gothic novel and despite a lack of lines is hypnotic. It's the performances that save the production from being just a precocious box of tricks. McDiarmid modulates between the eccentric who enters the piece wanting their story to be told and the sad tormented predator of that story. Gough is very good, burning with intensity and boredom, it's a powerful mix.

The characters begin to tell their story, it's a melodramatic one, betrayal, child prostitution, death and remorse. This is where the power of the play lies. Each has their place within it, even as the story changes depending upon who is recounting it. The urgency comes from the need for each of these stories to be told. They are like Jungian archetypes forcing their way up from a collective sub-conscious and making the act of artistic creation an inevitability. The cast capture this well they seem possessed by their stories, sometimes reluctantly.

The core of the play comes from the battle between a theatre director to impose his conventions upon the stories of each character. That's largely lost here. The battle between the director her actors and the family seems to be one of theatrical politics rather than that between truth and convention. In Pirandello's text the director can't imagine child prostitution on stage, here it's just a matter of putting actor's noses out of joint. And that is one of the problems here, despite the histrionic psychodrama of the character's stories this production feels small and petty, it shuffles around contemporary references and theatrical tricks so that nothing feels terribly important. It's just a big post-modern shrug, a raised eyebrow masquerading as insight.

The sense of pettiness is no more present than in the ending. Where we are rewound and welcomes into the director's commentary of the DVD version. It's this bookend that finally drowns the play in its own smugness. The DVD interlude, is wrapped in another layer of commercial shenanigans and it reduces Pirandello to the level of MC Escher, the play becomes an ever expanding Russian doll, with an ever decreasing depth. More and more happens and it means less and less, the overwhelming sense you get is a production that's inordinately pleased with its own little tricks but has very little respect for the play or the audience, let alone the characters.

Of all the arts contemporary theatre makes the biggest claims of shock and awe, its intellectual pretensions are worn most gaudily and its desire for petulant shock most desperate. Of course all too often it most dramatically fails to deliver, it demonstrates its pedestrian vogueish studpidity again and again. If Pirandello was concerned with anything in this play it was the difference between truth and reality. The idea that a representation of reality by naturalistic means is somehow privileged is destroyed by the urgent truth of these melodramatic characters. This is what Sophocles and Shakespeare and Beckett knew, that truth and reality are not the same and not best arrived at through the illusionistic. That requires the discipline of pure writing, not a self-satisfied accretion of directorial novelties.

1 comment:

  1. John do you have a twitter profile? if not, consider one to help share you critical and thought provoking words around... PWR