Minerva Studio, Chichester
Opened 8 July, 2008

Luigi Pirandello’s play (premiered in 1921) notoriously interrogates our senses of reality and fidelity by having a group of fictional characters demand to have their tale of adultery, prostitution, incest and death told by a theatre company whose rehearsal they interrupt, then criticise the dramatic conventions the company try to employ to make it seem “real”. It’s the old illusion/reality motif, but inserted sharply into our fallible sense of “authenticity” and “truth” in art. Meanwhile, director Rupert Goold and his co-adaptor Ben Power have given us adaptations such as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus intercut with imagined scenes involving artists Jake & Dinos Chapman. Letting these two (Goold and Power, I mean, not the Chapmans) get their hands on Pirandello is like striking a match in a firework factory, though I’d hesitate to say which provided the gunpowder and which the flame.
The principal change they make is brilliant. No 21st-century Chichester audience would possibly be fooled at first into thinking they were watching a rehearsal, so instead we begin with a portrayal of a crew making a drama-documentary for television: we see a segment of video before a discussion takes place onstage with a network executive who complains that the story does not yet have a hook. After he leaves, and with the Producer (played by Noma Dumezweni; no character is officially named) groping around for a motivating idea, enter the characters, led by veteran Pirandellian Ian McDiarmid.
Instead of their story being turned into theatre, then, it is to be turned into TV, but into a form of TV we still reflexively trust as showing us the truth... even after all the reports of manipulation of material, even when, as here, it explicitly involves “reconstructions” using actors who we can see are behaving nothing like the “real” characters. Making us feel a greater apparent connection with a base level of reality by actually adding a further level of mediation into Pirandello’s mix is a feat of genius. Our sense of the characters as being authentic persists even when, at the climax of the first part, the Mother’s discovery of the Father having sex with the Step-Daughter veers into what sounds like a Philip Glass opera. (The sexual element in general is once again as sinister and distasteful as it must have been at first; there is something both damaged and threatening about the mix of coquetry and accusation in Denise Gough’s Step-Daughter.)
After the interval, as the cliché would have it, “reality and illusion begin to merge”: the producer finds herself becoming as “unreal” as the characters, fading from her colleagues’ view; we see a video sequence of her running across the Chichester campus, the now-dead Boy in her arms, into the other theatre’s show but without interrupting it; then the video screens reveal a DVD menu and the first scene is re-enacted with additional audio commentary by the “director” and “writer” intercut with the lines spoken onstage. This is cheeky and delightful, and introduces another spurious index of authenticity, the contemporary phenomenon of the “director’s cut”. Unfortunately, this self-consciousness escalates for a further 15 minutes or so, for most of which time poor Dumezweni is stranded upstage in mute horror. The piece grows more and more pleased with its plethora of levels, putting Pirandello himself onstage and then throwing in +Hamlet+ for good measure, zooming ever further backwards like a Magritte painting of a painting of a painting... until it passes through the black hole of recursion and out the other side. What has been deliciously clever becomes torrentially clever-clever. If they had known when to stop, it could have been perfect.
 Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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