Review: Six Characters in Search of an Author, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh; February 2008

Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author is a modern classic too long neglected by Scottish theatre. Mark Thomson’s excellent staging (a co-production between his Lyceum company, the National Theatre of Scotland, and Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre) rights a considerable wrong.

   The titular sextet (characters left in the theatrical limbo of an unfinished play) invade the rehearsal room of a theatre company. It may seem like a simple theatrical device, but we continue to feel the cultural aftershocks of Pirandello’s choice today, more than eight decades after he wrote the drama.

   It is often said that modernism “removed” the illusory “fourth wall” between audience and actors, but, with Six Characters, it would be truer to say that it placed a tonne of dynamite under the notional structure and blew it to pieces. As the characters’ hopelessly contorted family relations are repeated (for this is no mere rehearsal), it is as if the intensity and bleak humanism of Thomas Vinterberg’s powerful family drama Festen had been set in the context of a searing examination of the possibilities and limitations of theatrical “reality”.

   Pirandello gave his play a magnificent structure, and that remains in David Harrower’s intelligent and flexible new translation. Splendidly set and lit (by Francis O’Connor and Chris Davey), Thomson’s beautifully weighted production insinuates its way into one’s psyche, becoming increasingly profound and affecting in the extraordinary second half.

   This is down, in no small measure, to Amy Manson, who plays the step-daughter “character” (arguably the nearest the thing the drama has to a central role). Whilst reflecting her anger at what has happened to her (marginalised as an “illegitimate” child; subjected, she implies, to paedophilia; forced, by circumstances, into prostitution), she also rails in exasperation against the impossibility of the attempts by the director and the actors to tell her story. It is a truly virtuosic performance, full of nuance, dark humour and, ultimately, nerve-jangling emotional depth.

   There are fine performances throughout the 16-strong cast, both among the leads (the “characters”) and the supporting roles (the director and actors). John Dougall’s director, in particular, is as dryly witty a performance as one could wish to see. 

   All-in-all, this is an excellent evening’s theatre, and a further vindication of the National Theatre of Scotland’s policy of funding and promoting collaboration between theatre companies.

This review was originally published in the Daily Telegraph in February 2008

© Mark Brown

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