Company of Six Characters in Search of an Author
Company of Six Characters in Search of an Author
© JL Fernandez

The title of Luigi Pirandello's 1921 play has in itself become a critical cliché of the modern theatre so it is salutary to be reminded of just how revolutionary and unusual a masterpiece it is.

And this elegant, beautifully lit and gorgeously acted production visiting the Barbican this week from the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, performed in French with surtitles, lays out the bare bones with no hint of superfluous dressing or elaborate design - which is the only way I have experienced the play before, once in Russian, more recently as directed to the hilt by Rupert Goold.

The artfulnesss of the piece lies in its utter simplicity. The illusion, as we look at the stage, is that we are in a theatre where a company of actors have gathered to rehearse a play by Pirandello. They are interrupted by the arrival of six characters searching for someone to recount their story, which is one of infidelity, cruelty, tragedy and, at its heart, the incestuous encounter in a brothel between the father (Hueges Quester) and the stepdaughter (Valérie Dashwood).

The clear implication is that such events are beyond the expression of the theatre, or not part of its remit, or simply too terrible to contemplate through an artistic filter, and the play becomes a battlefield of emotion where the boundaries of reality and illusion are shattered beyond repair.

The first sensational production of Six Characters in Paris in 1924 changed the modern theatre as decisively as did Beckett's Waiting for Godot thirty years later. Its subject matter, even its style, in a lesser production, could come across as old hat, yesterday's news. But Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota's production – as extraordinary as the same company's haunting version of Ionesco's Rhinoceros that visited the Barbican two years ago – reinvents the power of Pirandello through the sheer force of the acting, and with some striking use of lights, shadows and silhouettes.

The reality of these human dilemmas and tragedies is achieved through human expression, the artifice of the situation undermined in the technical and theatrical presentation of tragedy recalled in the very opposite of tranquillity. The philosophical conundrum so brilliantly explored is that life only happens when it's orchestrated. You didn't exist if you didn't tell someone you did. And watching this wonderful company of actors is to bear witness and come alive yourself.

Six Characters in Search of an Author runs at the Barbican until 7 February 2015