Pirandello’s modernist masterpiece Six Characters in Search of an Author was once known as the bohemian shocker of the 1920s and the first challenge to any revival is that of re-inventing that lost sense of provocation in a theatre culture where nothing can be all that new any more.

In this regard, there is no faulting the work of the Headlong and Chichester Festival Theatre team of director Rupert Goold, his co-adaptor Ben Power or designers Miriam Buether (sets), Malcolm Rippeth (lighting), Adam Cork (music and sound) and Lorna Heavey (video and projections). They take a piece about conflicting levels of artifice into a new area of television documentary realism as substitute for theatrical story-telling.

And what is absolutely new is the idea that documentary footage might be boosted by the incorporation of actual tragedy, in the way that some recent television programmes have ironically undermined their message by being too truthful. The producer (Noma Dumezweni) is in trouble with her bosses for not getting the full story on a family travelling to Denmark to arrange the death of their own son in a suicide clinic.

Enter the six characters led by Ian McDiarmid’s chilling dark-suited paedophile – too many shows are fashionably falling for child abuse these days, but here the criminal perversion unlocks a central mystery in Pirandello – his operatically Italianate wife (Eleanor David), the Lolita-ish step-daughter (Denise Gough) and the depressive son (Dyfan Dwyfor).

They fit the programme maker’s requirements like a glove, and the haunting scenes of the father’s encounter with his own daughter in a brothel, and the death of a child in a moonlit garden, are replayed as demonstrations of dysfunctional behaviour in extremis. The fish tank in which a girl symbolically drowns is enlarged by lighting to contain them all. And the producer finds herself trapped in a theatrical nightmare as she rushes from the stage (on film) into next door’s backstage barricades in Les Miserables.

The National used Hamlet as their play-within-a-play twenty years ago in a more sedately “English” version and Goold and Power have some fun with our national hobby of reducing European classics. But the show lacks the overpowering style and elegance of the great Russian production by Anatol Vassiliev that came to LIFT many years ago; this is a play, au fond, as much about longing and yearning as it is about dark instincts, and we are only getting here half the story, rather like the producer herself.

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from this production\'s original run at the Chichester Festival theatre, 09 July 2008.

“What is truth?” asked a curious Pilate of Jesus. It is also a question raised by the despairing documentary producer towards the end of Rupert Goold’s exhilarating and free-form adaption of Pirandello’s modernist masterpiece.

Goold’s brilliant idea is to change Pirandello’s original text, in which a theatre company has its play rehearsal interrupted, to tell the story of a TV documentary team whose film about a young man going to a suicide clinic in Denmark to end his life, is dismissed by a TV executive as not being real enough. At this point, the eponymous six characters walk in, looking for an author to tell their story. We’re then taken on a roller-coaster ride that just touches on Pirandello’s original text but along the way explores such fundamental questions as the gap between real-life and its presentation – “the shadow between the idea and the reality” as Eliot puts it.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the production is the way that Goold subverts Hamlet (by way of Festen). Initially, we see the suicide of a young man in Denmark but when the characters tell their story, it’s apparent that this is another strand of the Hamlet plot with a step-daughter mourning her own father and seeing her mother married to a man who’s abusing her.

As the two central Characters: Ian McDiarmid is a chillingly creepy child abuser, as Prospero-like, he manipulates his family and the film crew with a wave of his stick. Denise Gough as the abused step-daughter is intensely compelling, her drawn, pale face capturing the horror of her story. John Mackay is also excellent as both the boorish TV executive and the leering pimp Mr Pace – changed from the Mrs Pace of the original. There’s some compelling lighting work from Malcolm Rippeth too.

Goold is a director with more outlandish ideas in one production than some directors have in a lifetime. Sometimes he does go too far: there’s a completely unnecessary scene in which the harassed producer, convincingly played by Noma Dumazweni, leaves the theatre and is seen on a video screen supposedly interrupting The Music Man next door. There’s also a very self-indulgent cameo by Goold and fellow adapter Ben Power, full of theatrical in-jokes that doesn’t fit in at all with the rest of the production.

But this remains an extraordinarily compelling evening at the theatre. On the way to the show, I was worried whether this once avant-garde work would look like a museum–piece: I needn’t have worried, this is a work that is as up-to-date as it could possibly be. And for all its faults, there probably won’t be a many more visually exciting pieces of theatre in the UK this year.

- Maxwell Cooter