By Luigi Pirandello, in a new version by Rupert Goold and Ben Power
Directed by Rupert Goold
Venue: Minerva Theatre
Date: Wednesday 2nd July 2008
This was a typical Rupert Goold production – a number of really good ideas but patchy in execution. I have wanted to see this play for a long time, as I’m a great fan of Pirandello – I’m still waiting! The adaptation was so wide-ranging that I felt I wasn’t necessarily getting a reasonable picture of the original intention. I may be wrong, but without knowing more about the play, I won’t be able to tell. Even so, there was a lot to enjoy in this production, although it did have some tedious bits as well.
The ‘plot’ is almost irrelevant. The intention of the piece is to explore the nature of reality and truth, and to challenge the audience’s perceptions. The overall idea was of a documentary film team, reviewing their work on a euthanasia story with the executive producer, and then being hijacked by a bizarre group of people who claim to be six abandoned characters looking for an author to help them tell their stories. The performance then unravels layer upon layer of reality, often with disturbing or uncomfortable images, including paedophilia, rape, murder, etc. Pirandello himself even puts in an appearance, to complain that he doesn’t know how to end the piece. He didn’t know what should be in the rest of it, either, if one of the conversations in this adaptation is anything to go by – he wrote six different versions of the play.
The set was a suitably bleak utilitarian office space, with various tables, chairs, computers, etc. spread around. Behind this office, visible through the windows, is a widthways corridor with another office space on the other side of that. The opening scene has the documentary team reviewing the tape, and stopping it a couple of times to make comments. At one point, a doctor who’s speaking to camera puts her hand up to her eye as if she’s crying – well, it’s a sad subject. However, as a long-standing contact lens wearer, I could see that the hand movement wasn’t quite right for an emotional reaction – I guessed she had something in her eye, and so it turned out. Her contact lens had shifted. It was a neat trick, though, reminding us how easily these sorts of things can be exploited in the editing suite to give a completely false perspective of the situation.
The discussion during this phase was full of topical references, and almost constantly referenced the current climate where so many revelations of fakery have led to program makers cracking down in all areas. There was also an explanation of the difference between drama documentary and docu-drama – don’t expect me to tell you now, I didn’t really understand it at the time. A lot of it seemed like splitting hairs, but what did come across, here and elsewhere, was the definite belief that faking an event can somehow be more ‘real’ and truthful than filming the actual occurrence. (Doesn’t work for sporting events, mind you.)
The executive has left, to the accompaniment of a finger and several gratuitous insults, and the team are considering their options when six people troop into the room. All dressed in black, three of them, the father, mother and one of the daughters, start to plead to be given the chance to tell their story. The other three characters, a young boy and girl, and an older boy, pretty much stay silent throughout this scene, and indeed for most of the play.
The father and the feisty daughter (not actually his, we discover) are at odds, and it soon becomes clear that he’s been doing something he shouldn’t have with her. The mother is a highly dramatic person, very Italian and expressive. Played by Eleanor David, she’s also drop-dead gorgeous, and sings divinely, but more of that later. The basic story is that the father employed a handsome young secretary, the secretary and the mother fell for each other, the father allowed it and even encouraged them to set up house together with his financial support, they ended up leaving town and when the secretary died, the mother returned with her three children – the two girls and the younger boy – and the father knew nothing about it. When he visited a local brothel (twinned with a hat shop), he doesn’t recognise the girl in the bedroom as his step-daughter. The mother discovers them together, and is deeply shocked. The father then takes them all back to his house, where his son, the legitimate one, takes against the new family members with all the resentment of the young. He’s not too keen on his mother for deserting him, either. She felt she was turned out by her husband, and so it goes on, each person having a different view of the events. Actually, the story that does emerge is fairly coherent, and I felt it was only the interpretations and reactions to it that varied, rather than actual ‘facts’, if a fictional story can have any of those.
The producer is gradually won over by this bizarre crew. Not interested at the start, she becomes intrigued by their pleading. She’s initially torn by her desire to do justice to her original story about assisted euthanasia, and she takes some persuading to put that aside and spend some of her precious time recording the details of this new account. She already has a couple of actors available for dramatic reconstructions, so she asks her team to get a suitable set prepared for filming. This takes some time to set up, and instead of an interval, we sit through the cumbersome set construction, with a couple of clips from the documentary footage showing on the screens. The first clip is simply recording the producers feelings as they arrive in Holland, and the second I’ve forgotten the details of, but I think it showed more of the euthanasia stuff. The first wasn’t particularly interesting, the second was a bit better, but on the whole I would have preferred to have taken a break at this point.
The second scene was definitely the most entertaining of the evening. The installed set represents the bedroom in which the father and the daughter are found by the mother in a sexually explicit, though not climactic, situation. The two main participants are concerned to get the room right, while the film crew just want to get on with it. There’s a lot of fun in the way the producer tries to placate the characters, especially when they find out that they won’t be doing the scene themselves. The actors will be recreating the scene for the cameras. This is where most of the ideas about recreations being more faithful to the truth comes out, and I found it hugely entertaining to see actors, playing ‘real’ characters telling another actress, playing a producer, that they could do a better job than the actors because they are the events, i.e. the events are entirely what they are about, and they only live through these events. It’s fun juggling all these different levels of reality, though I can see why Pirandello found this play so difficult to write. Anyway, the characters eventually accept the situation, and after describing their experiences a bit, the actors get down to it.
This was the funniest bit of the play, as the actors do their warm-ups and try to get into their roles. As they attempt to do the scene in the bedroom, the characters fill in more of the details, and it turns out that a certain Mr Pace (pronounce Pa-chay) had been present at the time – owner of the hat business as well as pimp. The hat business employed the mother, and Mr Pace employed the daughter in other ways. The producer asks if they can get hold of Mr Pace, and the characters oblige by summoning him with lots of hats (from the studio’s store). With much grunting and a few other weird noises, Mr Pace emerges from underneath the bed, an impressive trick, and one I didn’t expect after seeing the stuff brought on to build the floor. Mr Pace is what I would call a grotesque, all flailing arms and a weird accent. There’s some sexual action on the bed, which the producer cuts short, and then we get the scene between the father and daughter. Turns out he brought along a child’s dress for her to wear, and since we’d heard he also stalked the girl when she was still known to him as his step-daughter, it’s clear he’s someone who prefers them young. It’s a dark and quite powerful section of the play, strong meat for now never mind the 1920s when it was written. Now they’re into their stride these two warring characters are working together to tell this story, and it’s brought a lot of depth to what was a relatively superficial piece up to this point.
Just as the father is about to get more deeply involved, as it were, the mother bursts into the room, and starts singing. Not any words, just sounds, amazing sounds, expressing her emotions wonderfully. I was taken aback at first, but after a few seconds I realised what was happening and really enjoyed it. I felt in need of something to express the emotions that the previous bit had stirred up, and this was perfect. The singing went on for some time, and the father joined in with a weird barking howl that I can’t adequately describe. It got across both his suffering and his disfunctionality.
I think the interval came just after this, but I don’t really remember the detail. With such a mixed up play, it’s hard to get a grip on the order of things. The second half started with a video clip of the producer talking about how important documentary making was to her, and how she saw her role in that process. There were a couple of screens for viewing these clips. One dropped down centrally, and gave a big but grainy picture, while another was positioned over to our left, and gave a better quality but smaller picture. From our distance, we couldn’t see much detail on that one. When the film crew were working, there were often other screens in the office showing the pictures as well, and I could also see the screen on the camera, for example when they were filming the daughter being interviewed about the bedroom events.
During the interval the installed set and most of the office paraphernalia were cleared, and a large rectangular water tank was wheeled on. Placed centrally, it had what seemed to be fronds and rather milky water in it. Other than that, and possibly a chair or two, the room was bare. The characters arrive, with the producer, who is carrying a camcorder. She doesn’t know where they are, and the father explains she’s now in the story with them. She resists this notion, but he questions her on who she is, even showing her a clip from a much earlier interview where she expresses a completely different point of view about euthanasia from her current one. The father’s argument seems to be that as they (the characters) are unchanging, and she, and all other ‘real’ people are constantly changing, then the fictional characters are more real than the ‘real’ people. It’s a load of rubbish, but he is so convincing, and she is so uncertain that she accepts it in the same way as a rabbit accepts the oncoming car bumper.
The final part of their story is now revealed. With so many negative emotions swirling around in that ‘family’, it’s not surprising that a tragedy happens. The tank represents a pond in the garden of the house. With the mother and father away, the elder daughter and legitimate son head off to the forest to get to know one another better, leaving the two younger children unsupervised in the garden. First the girl falls into the pond and drowns (she had a hidden breathing tube, so she could stay under for a horribly long time), and then the boy gives himself a fatal injection and dies. The producer is horrified by this. She doesn’t appear to do anything to try to save the girl, but then this is only a representation of the garden – she may have been many yards away instead of a few feet. However, her scream at the drowning is what the other characters hear, and which alerts them to the deaths, mingling the layers of ‘reality’ beyond any hope of disentanglement.
With the boy, the producer tries to get help for him, and picking him up she runs out of the theatre. We know she does this, because the screens now take up the story and show us a film of her running downstairs, across to the main house (oh, of course, it’s The Music Man tonight) running into the main house, into the auditorium, onto the stage (seventy-six trombones, if you’re interested), off again, and back the way she came, still clutching the boy, and still not getting any help, despite the fact that the theatre staff were very obligingly holding doors open for this poor woman who’s carrying a young boy in her arms, clearly distressed. I found this part quite boring. It’s been done before (Fram, Brief Encounter), it didn’t add anything to my understanding of the emotional content of the scene, the attempted layering of realities would have worked better if the theatre staff hadn’t been so obviously present (I’ve always found them very solicitous and helpful on the rare occasions I’ve been in need), and I can’t for the life of me think of any good reason why this film was necessary. The boy was just as dead at the end of it as he was before, and she was just as distressed.
Returning to the Minerva stage, the producer collapses in a heap by the back wall of the office, and from there she witnesses a strange series of events. On the big screen, the director’s comments option is highlighted, and we hear a couple of voices talking about the film they’ve just made. It’s about a documentary team who get taken over by some characters, etc. The fun here was in the reshowing of the first scene. All the original characters are there, and apart from the producer, go through the same actions. The voices don’t need to see it all, however, so they fast forward through bits of it, and the actors on stage have to do the scene very fast. It’s hilariously funny. As I recall, the producer stays where she is, but says her lines as needed. Then the back office is lit up, and the same executive is listening to two guys selling him their concept for adapting Six Characters. It’s just out of copyright and they want to get in before the National does its version. The executive goes along with it, finding the idea of the stupid executive in the adaptation very funny, and phones up somebody to get clearance from the estate for this version to go ahead. This is where we get the information about Pirandello writing six different versions.
Then there’s a strange bit where the two guys pitching the idea are butchered by the father and daughter, and then we see Pirandello working hard to finish at least one version of the play. His servant(?) comes in to tell him dinner’s ready, and they have what appears to be a forgettable conversation, and then that’s all cleared and the back office lights up again. This time it contains the family of characters, preparing a bed for the producer. She goes through, takes to the bed, and accepts the syringe she’s given, injecting herself before lying down in the bed, lovingly looked after by the fatal group. I think that’s how it ended, but it seemed to disintegrate in the later stages, so I may be misremembering.
There was a suitably Pirandello-ish moment at the end when the actors came trooping on to take their bows. The young lad who was ‘dead’ at the back of the office didn’t move, and for a moment or two I wondered if this was another level of confusion for the audience. But it wasn’t. He got up, they all took their bows and headed off, while we hung on for the post-show (where we found out he had simply fallen asleep).
Before I mention any post-show comments, I’ve a few of my own concerning the evening’s entertainment. All the actors gave excellent performances. Ian McDiarmid as the father was wonderfully creepy, yet authoritative. Eleanor David I have already mentioned, and Denise Gough as the step-daughter was superb at showing us her anger and her disturbing involvement in prostitution. I will also mention Dylan Dwyfor as the legitimate son, whom we have seen before in The Comedy Of Errors in the RSC’s Complete Works Festival (Young Person’s Shakespeare). He didn’t get a lot of lines, and his character mainly sulks in the background, but he did it well.
My main praise though has to be for Noma Dumezweni as the producer. In many ways she holds this piece together, and as the crossover character she allows us into that nightmare world of uncertainty about our own existences. The producer had been deeply affected by her sister’s long illness and death, and that had caused her attitude towards euthanasia to shift 180 degrees. She was also perhaps looking for a way out for herself, and so this final choice didn’t feel like a new idea, but something that had been building for quite some time. I did feel at times that the characters were actually mass murderers, and that they’d be off to find another victim as soon as they’d buried this one, offering to tell their story again with equally deadly results.
One point that was made during the play and again in the post-show was that fictional characters are eternal. Bollocks. There are a lot of lost works of fiction that nobody remembers, so as far as this physical level is concerned, all their characters are dead. As dodos. For other levels of existence, that’s a different matter, but then the rules for ‘real’ people change at other levels too, so it’s still a silly point. Comes of people fearing death and wanting something to live forever, I suppose.
The post-show attracted a lot of people this time, more than usual for the Minerva. There were the inevitable questions about what the play meant, what was going on and what actually happened. No satisfactory answers were forthcoming, unsurprisingly. A woman expressed a more general concern about the young boy being present during some pretty disturbing activities, but we were reassured by the cast that he wasn’t at all bothered about it. He often had his back to the action, and didn’t really understand what was going on. We found out about the breathing tube, and apparently the actress diving in to ‘drown’ found it really exciting to do. (If you ever needed proof that actors are strange…..) I found I was out of step with the majority of the crowd, so I refrained from making any comments as I see no need to spoil the party on such occasions and I couldn’t think of any constructive questions to ask. On the whole, the audience were puzzled but appreciative, whereas I was not so much puzzled as disappointed, but on reflection it may have been a better production than I experienced on the night. It was still in the review period, so there may well be changes as they get more experience.
It’s certainly a very Chichester-based production, and with a lot of contemporary references, it won’t transfer to another stage or time easily. However the central idea of the adaptation wasn’t bad, and it seems other directors have made huge changes as well in the past, so we may never see a ‘traditional’ production ever in our lifetimes. Get used to it.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me