City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Six Characters in Search of an Author Review

By Vivien Devlin - Posted on 21 February 2008

Show Details
National Theatre of Scotland and Citizens Theatre
Mark Thomson (director) Frances O'connor (designer), Chris Davey (lighting designer)
Ron Donachie (father), Sandra Clark (mother), Amy Manson (step daughter), Andrew Scott -Ramsay (son), Una McLean (Madame Pace), John Dougall (Director), Benny Young (Lead actor), Irene Allan (Lead Actress), Cameron Mowatt (young actor), Carol Ann Crawford (actress), Kirstin Murray (actress/pianist), Eric Barlow (stage manager), Romana Abercromby (ASm), Kirsty Mackay (usher)
Running time: 

When Luigo Pirandello's play Six Characters in Search of an Author was first staged in Rome in 1921, there was a minor riot with the audience divided into supporters and adversaries, the latter shouting "Asylum, Asylum" as the writer ran from the theatre. Following further productions in Milan, London and New York, Pirandello was lauded as an original, modernist writer and a powerful influence on the theatre of the absurd.

This co-production by the National Theatre of Scotland and Citizens Theatre is a new revised version adapted by David Harrower.

The 1920s period setting is a bare stage with just a row of bentwood chairs and a piano, ready for the rehearsal of a play - Mixing it Up by Pirandello. As the floor is swept clean and stage lights fixed, the fashionably dressed actors arrive one by one, discarding hats and coats. They hardly communicate, except a brief "Good morning," each apparently preoccupied by their individual dramatic role: the stage manager checks the script, the lead actor stands stage front muttering lines from Hamlet, and a young actress plays romantic songs on the piano - all in their own enclosed theatrical world.

The quiet mood is broken as the Director rushes in the door, followed by the glamorous Lead Actress. A sense of order is resumed and the rehearsal begins - but very soon interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a group of six people.

While the original script dictates that they enter from the back of the stage, director Mark Thomson has an ingenious alternative appearance - house lights up as the Usher leads the visitors into a dress circle private box. Who are these strange outsiders gatecrashing the auditorium? They calmly come downstairs and walk up on to the stage. The director requests that the stage manager remove the intruders, but the "six characters" demand to find an author who can complete the play for which they were created. After much persuasion the director and actors agree to help them act out their characters' lives.

Pirandello was said to have devised this dramatic concept when he had writer's block for a new work with no clear idea how the narrative should unfold. The characters in his mind were "creatures of my spirit, already living a life which was their own, a life which it was not in my power to deny them."

The story of the characters' dysfunctional family - mother, father, step daughter, son, two children - is slowly played out, unravelling their tragic lives of lost love, despair and betrayal, which soon proves to be full of contradiction and contention. When the director asks his two lead actors to act out a scene, the Stepdaughter laughs hysterically as their performance fails to dramatise the disturbing truth of what really happened. In a complex twist of role reversal, we begin to see the Family as real people while the Actors are imaginary.

The superb ensemble divided into opposing Actors and Characters is delicately choreographed as they tentatively confront each other and begin to play their dramatic game of words and wit, pretence and reality. At its emotional heart, Ron Donachie as the Father and Amy Manson as the Stepdaughter are both particularly impressive in expressing the shifting levels within their brittle relationship. Credit too for the deliciously mannered portrayal of the harassed Director by John Dougal and to Benny Young and Carol Ann Crawford as the charmingly comedic Lead Actor and Actress. Harrower's pin sharp dialogue captures key moments of light hearted humour as well as the bleak, black Brechtian theatricality of this surreal play within a play.

This is a magical, absorbing two hours of intimate psychological drama, which leaves us with a final shadowy vision of Pirandello's lost characters, standing defiantly centre stage as the lights dim.

Times: Royal Lyceum, 15 February to 8 March.
Citizens Theatre, 12 to 29 March

Photograph of Ron Donachie & Andrew Scott Ramsay. Photographer: Richard Campbell