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Review Round-up: Goold’s Characters Find Plaudits

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Rupert Goold’s production of Pirandello’s seminal 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author transferred to the West End this week (Monday 15 September 2008, previews from 10 September), opening at the Gielgud Theatre for a limited season until 8 November (See 1st Night Photos, 16 Sep 2008).

The co-production from Headlong Theatre, of which Goold is artistic director, was first seen in July at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, where Goold’s award-laden Patrick Stewart-led Macbeth began last summer ahead of its transfer to the Gielgud and on to Broadway.

Goold and co-adapter Ben Power have updated the play to cater for the “media-obsessed age” of the 21st century (See News, 29 Jan 2008). In the exploration of reality and the blurred border between fiction and life, between the stage and the world outside, six characters arrive unannounced during the editing of a documentary film. Unfinished characters desperately in search of an author, the documentary producer agrees to let them film their story.

The cast is led by former Almeida joint artistic director Ian McDiarmid (pictured), who was taken ill shortly after the press performance but is expected back next week (See Today\'s Other News). He is joined by Jamie Bower, Eleanor David, Noma Dumezweni, Dyfan Dwyfor, Christine Entwisle, Denise Gough, Jake Harders, Jeremy Joyce, John Mackay and Robin Pearce. Six Characters in Search of an Author is designed by Mariam Beuther, with lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, video by Lorna Heavey and sound by Adam Cork.

Critical reactions were even warmer for the West End transfer than those that greeted the original Chichester run. The reason for this cited by the Guardian’s Michael Billington (who saw it in both venues) is the suitability of the Gielgud’s proscenium-arch layout for “this most meta-theatrical of plays”. Critics cheered the production for providing a “boldness seldom encountered in the West End”, as well as lauding a “powerful” array of performances (particularly the “outstanding” Ian McDiarmid). But most column inches were taken up by praise for director Rupert Goold, heralded variously as “exhilaratingly imaginative” and the “hottest director on the theatrical block”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “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 … The National used Hamlet as their play-within-a-play 20 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.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “I was lukewarm about this free version of Pirandello\'s 1921 classic when I saw it at Chichester this summer. If I respond more keenly to the transfer, it is partly because this most meta-theatrical of plays works best inside a proscenium-arch. But it is also because the raw Oedipal power of Rupert Goold\'s production transcends the ingenious framework he has devised with Ben Power … The Pirandellian core is there; and I find it more compelling than the dilemma of the TV Producer drawn into the family\'s narrative. Although Noma Dumezweni lends the character intensity, her adventures in the additional last act supplied by Goold and Power come to seem superfluous. She stumbles, clutching a dead child, into a performance of Les Mis and ultimately we see her become the physical victim of Pirandello\'s characters. It\'s very clever. But what counts is the way Goold\'s production captures the chaos and pain of the disruptive family and the dark fear that lies at the heart of Pirandello\'s play.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Is Rupert Goold, now the hottest director on the theatrical block, a maverick genius or a self-indulgent upstart? His ultra-fussy revival of Macbeth left me taking the more churlish view; but his staging of Pirandello\'s best-known play, which I first caught at Chichester in July, more than merits its transfer. I haven\'t seen a more exhilaratingly imaginative revival of a modern classic since Stephen Daldry raised Priestley\'s Inspector Calls from the grave … What also struck me was Goold\'s ability to get powerful performances from his actors, notably from Denise Gough, whose Stepdaughter exudes smouldering scorn and Ian McDiarmid, who doesn\'t quite catch the Father\'s inner guilt but is still an impressively sardonic, sinister figure … I was left mentally waving a white flag - while cheering a boldness seldom encountered in the West End.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “Six Characters is recreated and given relevance for a world eager to turn a blind eye to television’s blurring of the lines between reality and illusion. Goold has charged it with its original existential mystery and visceral excitements. The elements of family breakdown, marital collapse and suicide acquire a chilling potency … In the Goold-Power version, the funereally-dressed sextet, led by Ian McDiarmid’s flamboyant, cane-flourishing Father, intrudes on a film-editing studio in Denmark. Here, Noma Dumezweni’s Producer, two actors and technicians view extracts from the drama documentary they are making about mercy-killing and a terminally-ill 14-year-old who has chosen to die … Goold stages these scenes of familial disintegration to shocking effect. A procurer leaps from under the brothel bed like some human jack-in-the-box. Denise Gough’s terrific Stepdaughter, a mocking, sexually provocative, lipsticked presence, stripped by McDiarmid’s icily functional Father, dons her Lolita dress and Eleanor David’s outraged Mother bursts in on them. To Adam Cork’s eerie, Berg-like music the trio sing howling, wordless arias of grief and rage.”

      NOTE: The following review was in response to the original run at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre.

    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “Pirandello\'s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) is one of the great works of 20th-century modernism … But though the Italian dramatist\'s experiments with the concepts of truth and illusion, and his ability to combine intellect with raw emotion, remain highly influential, the play itself is rarely revived. The dialogue has gathered dust, the theatrical folk he portrays belong to another age, and there are moments that seem floridly melodramatic. Rupert Goold has clearly taken all this on board in his extraordinary new production, which might offend purists but which seems to me to get to the heart of Pirandello\'s meaning while making the old play seem fresh to a modern audience … This latest piece confirms Goold as the most exciting director of his generation … Ian McDiarmid is outstanding as the Father, by turns witty, urbane, sinister and anguished … And there is strong support from Denise Gough as the bitter, abused Stepdaughter, looking like something out of Clockwork Orange, and John Mackay as a persuasively vile TV executive.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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