Pirandello’s six characters may be back in search of their author, embarking once again on one of 20th-century drama’s seminal existential quests, but the second hour of Richard Jones’ ultimately breathtaking slow burn of a production is likely to leave avid spectators searching for words. That means sitting out a somewhat desultory stretch earlier on, not to mention an intermission that took a bewildered Young Vic audience pretty much by surprise. (This is one staging that should definitely play straight through.) But Jones tightens his grip after the break until the element of theatrical tingle is almost unbearable. Don’t be put off by something that might sound like an evening of homework. By the time Jones gets to his shivery and highly disturbing close, you won’t know whether to make for the exit in alarm or simply sit back in awe.
That degree of immediacy is no mean feat, given the status of “Six Characters in Search of an Author” (David Harrower’s new version slightly emends the original title), an 80-year-old text whose importance had tended to be the province of student seminars — OK, class, Pirandello as anti-illusionist template: discuss — rather than re-created anew onstage. (Its last London revival, at the National in 1987, featured a then little-known Ralph Fiennes.) What’s more, Pirandello’s dissection of the reality/illusion dichotomy can — in the wrong hands — seem like a hoary theatrical canard that doesn’t actually pan out in performance, especially since so many subsequent dramatists (Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter, to name just three) have over time contributed their own stirring addenda to Pirandello’s 1921 debate.
As if the play weren’t ingenious enough, Jones has his own tricks up his sleeves. What else, after all, would one expect from the director whose 1990 Old Vic revival of Corneille’s “The Illusion” — a play on the same thematic axis as Pirandello’s — included a remarkable trompe l’oeil effect that seemed to land the audience out on the street? For this production, the Young Vic’s in-the-round auditorium has been transformed into a venue of mock splendor, complete with gilded chairs and chandeliers, as if to heighten the occasion of a play about the theater.
Barely has the production begun before a screen drops to show film footage of a frustrated author spending more time smoking than writing, followed by an illustrated lecture on Pirandello and his familial peccadilloes that will have eerie resonances with the ones to come in his play.
Noted these days more for his work in opera than in theater, Jones has chosen his music carefully, too: The sounds of “Pagliacci” frame the piece, the Leoncavallo opera itself obsessed with metatheatrical issues. The Director (Darrell D’Silva) is busily making his biographical points to a company of actors rehearsing their way through the same playwright’s “The Rules of the Game” when the screen slices open and in come the titular “characters.”
What they want, as their self-appointed spokesman — the pinstripe-suited Father (Stephen Boxer) — tells the dismayed actors, is to live “for only a moment through you,” a desire that allows the fictional family to relate its genuine pain in the hope that the actors can invest it with artistry and shape.
Whose suffering, though, is more valid: that of the actors who, abetted by theatrical artifice, know how to project grief, or of the mysteriously arrived, black-clad clan that has lived it? “This is the theater,” chuckles the Director, only to discover that the unfolding story in which his actors are enmeshed is no laughing matter. “Truth is only allowed up to a certain point.” But that’s not good enough for characters doomed forever to re-enact a tragedy steeped in suicide, mourning and marital woe. As the Father quietly makes clear, “illusion pains us.” His — anyone’s — life simply will not be caught by art.
Boxer’s subtly fierce performance is the linchpin of an able ensemble that knows when to reach, flamboyantly, for laughs (Liza Sadovy’s fur-clad Leading Actress is especially ripe), but also how to cut to the quick.
Aided no end by Matthew Richardson’s shadowy, often expressionistic lighting on a deliberately makeshift Italianate set by Giles Cadle, Jones presents the actors as an increasingly silent jury confronted with the irrefutable evidence of the characters’ wretched lives. D’Silva’s Director, in turn, is the troupe leader-as-therapist, who goads the family on to a final reckoning from which he is the one first sent reeling. Not long after, so is the audience, with even the final bows staged in such a way as to raise hairs on the back of the neck. Perhaps it’s fitting that the actors are preparing “Rules of the Game” when Jones (literally) slices their world wide open, since his “Six Characters” honors a difficult play by itself refusing to play by the rules.