Rupert Goold and Ben Power’s audacious new version of “Six Characters in Search of an Author” transports Pirandello’s 1921 masterpiece into the contemporary world of documentary television — and of the reality-bending film narratives the play itself helped spawn. Not for nothing are those most Pirandellian of today’s filmmakers, Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, name-checked in a breathtaking final act that sets up narrative frames as quickly as it bulldozes them down. The authors have undoubtedly tried to pack too much in, but it’s hard not to be won over by their chutzpah, as well as the technical excellence and sheer theatrical brio of Goold’s production.
In Pirandello’s original, a family of six characters invade a theatrical rehearsal and persuade the company to help them play out the traumatic story their author left incomplete. Here, the setting is a TV studio in Denmark, where a British production company is making a drama-documentary about assisted suicide. Thus Pirandello’s central theme — the relationship between lived experience and artistic creation — is updated via debates about the relative effectiveness of real-life footage vs. reenactments.
This dialogue is all new, but when the family arrives, the storytelling sticks remarkably closely to Pirandello’s text. Marian Buether’s costuming of the family in semiformal black and white wisely makes them appear unusual but not totally anachronistic or otherworldly, which helps auds believe the TV company’s tentative acceptance of their story.
Using the assisted suicide set, the company helps the family reenact the central moment from which they have never recovered, when the Father (Ian McDiarmid) unwittingly buys the services of his Stepdaughter (Denise Gough) in a brothel and is stopped just before having sex with her by the Mother (Eleanor David). This scene features a number of chillingly effective innovations — the use of live filming to add a representational layer, the Father dressing the Stepdaughter up as a little girl, and the Mother, bowled over by emotion, breaking out into an operatic aria at the moment of discovery as the family, automaton-like, strike a series of poses, caught in a horrible loop of memory, regret and disgust.
Pirandello’s understanding of human psychology is revealed as remarkably, resiliently contemporary.
So far, so relatively reverent to Pirandello. After the act break, however, Goold and Power let their innovations rip. The rest of the TV crew disappear, and the focus turns to the TV Producer (Norma Dumezweni), who experiences the rest of the family’s story like a living nightmare, including a bewilderingly convincing scene of onstage drowning.
In an ingeniously intercut sequence of live action and pre-recorded video, we see the Producer running through the Chichester premises, a dying boy in her arms, straight into the middle of the production currently running on the theater’s other stage, “The Music Man” (never did “Seventy-Six Trombones” sound so perversely cheery).
When she returns to the theater, two new characters pitch their “Six Characters Remix” project to an exec via a DVD with directors’ commentary, suggesting that everything we’ve just seen is their pitch. A few local-aud-pleasing self-referential jokes to Goold’s hit production of “Macbeth” (which premiered in this theater last summer) later, the action shifts again as, hilariously, Pirandello himself appears on stage, suffering from writer’s block.
A final narrative frame that attempts to justify the Danish setting and tie in the assisted suicide theme by references to “Hamlet” feels tacked on, but overall, this sequence is a bravura piece of contemporary theatermaking, combining recorded technology with precise live acting and direction.
Goold’s casting skillfully helps build the different levels of believability and theatricality. McDiarmid is one of the plummiest of Brit actors, and his heightened diction and exaggerated movements here set him off from the very convincing naturalism of the TV crew. Dumezweni particularly shines in the challenging second act in which she inhabits an ever-increasing state of high emotion and incredulity. Gough and David make strong impressions as the strident Stepdaughter and perpetually anguished Mother.
Familiarity with Pirandello’s play certainly aids enjoyment of this brainy funhouse of a show, but the storytelling is strong enough to carry along the uninitiated. There hasn’t been a major production of this play in London for at least seven years; strong local reviews might prompt a deserved transfer, which would be yet another feather in golden boy Goold’s cap.