JOYCE MCMILLAN on SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, WAITING FOR GODOT at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, and STATIC (Suspect Culture/Graeae at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow) for Scotsman Review 22.2.08
Six Characters In Search Of An Author 3 stars ***
Waiting For Godot 4 stars ****
Static 3 stars ***
IN THE AGE OF ‘REALITY TELEVISION’, there’s no play that should be more exciting to revive – or easier to update – than Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author, which opened this week at the Royal Lyceum in a major new co-production between the Lyceum, the Citizens’, and the National Theatre of Scotland. First seen in Rome in 1921, the play is set In a darkened theatre, where a disgruntled theatre company are rehearsing Pirandello’s previous play, The Rules Of The Game, when their work is interrupted by six strange figures (Pirandello suggests they wear masks) representing six members of a family trapped in an eternal tragic melodrama. There’s a father, a mother, a son, and three stepchildren borne by the mother to another man; and over a period of two hours, these characters – led by the raging eldest stepdaughter – repeatedly challenge the actors to convey anything like the real horror and tragedy of their situation.
The play therefore represents a cry from the heart about the claim of fictional drama to express important and enduring truths about the human condition, truths that go deeper than a mere representation of the surface of everyday life. And it’s because it largely fails to link that theme with shifting attitudes to fiction and “actuality” in our own time that Mark Thomson’s first production for the National Theatre of Scotland, based on David Harrower’s oddly stilted 2000 version of the text, emerges as a slightly disappointing effort, trapped by a musty sense of period that panders to stereotyped notions of theatre as an old-fashioned art-form.
The problem is particularly obvious in the performances of the actors playing the theatre company, who flounce on in their 1920’s costumes like a group of comic characters from one of those bad Agatha Christie movies starring Peter Ustinov. When the family of fictional characters appear, they look not like figures from another dimension, but like sombrely-dressed cousins of the acting company; and although Amy Manson turns in an excitingly angry performance as the stepdaughter, it’s not until the chilling final scene that the real weight of their drama begins to make itself felt.
Six Characters remains a fascinating play, and Mark Thomson’s production is not without its powerful moments. But it’s difficult not to feel that this handsome, conventional-looking production is a missed opportunity to bring into focus our whole contemporary attitude to fact and fiction. And it betrays itself, strangely, by focussing too much on Pirandello’s satirical portrait of Italian theatre in the 1920’s; and not enough on the brave and profound tragedy of sexual hypocrisy and exploitation that these six characters so desperately need to act out.
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, by contrast, is a modernist classic so pure, simple and abstract in concept that it’s never in danger of being treated as a period piece. Ever since its premiere in 1953, Beckett’s story of two old tramps waiting in a bleak landscape for a boss or saviour who never comes has been recognised as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century; and in Guy Hollands’s beautiful, lucid production at the Ciitizens’ Theatre, it’s easy to see why.
What Hollands does, with the help of sound and light man Graham Sutherland, is to emphasise the showbiz elements of Beckett’s inspiration – the sense of a Chaplinesque comedy double-act – through a subtle use of gentle hurdy-gurdy music, and of a touch of magical fairground light, as the moon and stars rise at the end of each act. And against this perfect, timeless backdrop, Gerry Mulgrew and Kevin McMonagle produce a pair of beautiful, unsentimental, light-touch performances, like two old clowns plying their trade in the face of death; or two old friends performing for one another as a defence against mortality, as the best male friends do.
If part of Beckett’s greatness lies in his clear-eyed acceptance of death as the ever-present backdrop to human life, then it’s part of the petty self-absorption of modern yuppie drama that it so often gazes transfixed at the fact of mortality, as if death were some unique tragedy never encountered before. Suspect Culture’s latest show Static – created jointly with the cutting-edge mixed-ability company Graeae – brings huge creative resources to its story of a young widow, Sarah, who is haunted by the stubborn presence of her late husband Chris, a music journalist who lost his hearing in a road accident. There’s a passionate engagement with the musical history and imagination of an Eighties generation who mark out their lives in historic gigs and album releases, rather than political events or even television shows. There’s some inspired use of sign-language as dance; and there’s the haunting presence of death as a metaphor for deafness, for being unheard, and unable to speak.
The problem, though, is that the situation itself is so familiar, and so hackneyed, that Dan Rebellato’s script constantly struggles to avoid drifting into emotional cliche, and cimaxes, after 90 minutes, in a memorably tasteless explosion of faux-spiritual kitsch. The four performers – notably Steve Webb as Chris, and Tom Thomasson as his muso-mate Martin – produce some moments of real artistry and emotion here and there. But in the end, the outworn concept behind this show just isn’t worth the energy expended on it; and the final impression is of a generation who now urgently need to get a life, and to get over the shock of discovering that they, too, are not immortal.
Six Characters In Search Of An Author at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 8 March, and at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 13-29 March. Waiting For Godot at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 8 March. Static at the Tron, Glasgow, until 23 February, at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 27 February-1 March, and on tour.