Despite reading the synopsis beforehand, I was entirely unprepared for Six Characters in Search of a Story, an intense piece of metatheatre that turns all convention on its head. Written in 1921 by Luigi Pirandello and first performed in the same year to mixed reviews, I can only imagine how startling it must have been for audiences then, and how radical it still is.
Right from the beginning, it is clear that we are watching a play about plays. A costume lady works away at her sewing machine while a scenic painter paints the set. Actors walk around the stage rehearsing lines and the director storms in, his instructions brisk. They are rehearsing for a Pirandello play and there is an absurdist touch to the way the actors are made to repeatedly rehearse a particularly inane scene. Beneath the playful, self-deprecating humour, however (‘We are reduced to staging Pirandello!’), there is a serious question about the point of theatre and how far removed it is from reality.
But how do the characters themselves feel genuine emotion, if they were birthed from an author’s imagination?
This idea is dramatically expanded upon the entrance of a group of six characters who claim they have been abandoned by their author and are now seeking an alternative author to finish their story. Initially unwelcoming, the director is increasingly drawn into their tragedy as they recount a tale of incest and guilt. He agrees to help them finish their story, but insists on his own actors learning their roles in order to stage it themselves. Disputes soon arise as the actors re-enact their story with comical exaggeration, inadvertently trivialising the raw guilt and shame of the characters as the father unwittingly makes love to his stepdaughter.
But how do the characters themselves feel genuine emotion, if they were birthed from an author’s imagination? Fiction and reality here is fluid, just as how time can stall and replay, the passions buried and resurfaced again and again. The characters insist that their suffering is real, and any attempt to replicate it would be mockery. But is that not all of theatre – dramatic representations of real life? Or is it the other way round, as Shakespeare writes – all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players?
The director, who was able to so precisely control the piece he was originally staging, realises that he is rapidly losing control over the six characters and their story. His attempts to regain control are thwarted by their passions which take increasingly free rein as the story progresses. There is also a question of determinism here: if the characters’ stories are unfinished, how do they know what exactly should happen next? Have their fates been sealed from the start? The director and actors can only look on in horror as the characters march unstoppable towards their inevitable tragic ends. The scenes are appropriately accompanied by eerie, bone-chilling music that sets the surreal feel of the whole play.
The director and actors can only look on in horror as the characters march unstoppable towards their inevitable tragic ends.
Originally written in Italian, this production was in French with English subtitles. The cast delivers an electrifying performance, and there is clever use of the stage and sets. A makeshift stage is wheeled on and we observe the very process of adapting ‘reality’ for stage – the physical representation of the metatheatre it is. Shadows are used to great effect, representing the almost mythical character of Madam Pace, who forced the stepdaughter into prostitution, as well as the burden of the tragedy on each forlorn character at the end of the play. A section of the stage juts out into the audience, and it is here that the director sits as he watched the characters take their story into their own hands further upstage, joining the audience as a spectator himself.
Director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s production is remarkably faithful to the text, but at the same time it takes advantage of modern staging techniques that make the experience an immersive one. No doubt the story is bizarre, yet the questions it raises are as relevant to theatre today as they ever were.
Six Characters in Search of an Author was on at the Barbican Centre from 4th to 7th February