Review – Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Gielgud Theatre

Saturday 11 October 2008

Do the Whingers exist?

Or are they merely characters created by their own writings?*

And is it inappropriate to use the word “merely”?

Without their incoherent ramblings would the characters of Phil and Andrew exist outside these pages?

Is it only you (yes, we mean you) reading these very words at this very moment that gives the Whingers their existence?

You can thank Rupert Goold for all this unseemly metaphysical introspection – for two nights on the trot this week the Whingers have been contemplating the Goold Standard: on Monday they were entertained/irritated (by Phil/Andrew respectively) and mystified (collectively) by his production of No Man’s Land . The following evening they threw themselves headlong into the existential morass of his (and Ben Power‘s**) re-imagining of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Goold rivals the West End Whingers’ chum Matthew Warchus (Boeing Boeing) in the über-busyness department and – also like Warchus- he was at the helm of one of their most favouritest productions ever (The Glass Menagerie with Jessica Lange) and hence has earned that rarest of things – a WEW rave review.

Anyhoo, in the Powers/Goold version of 6CISOAA the titular characters turn up during the production meeting for a docu-drama (or drama documentary, we can’t remember which now) about a terminally ill boy’s trip to Denmark where he plans to end his life. The six characters plead with the team to tell their story for them. Ironic, as Phil has always considered Andrew someone in search of some character himself.

No wonder Andrew was gushing about it at the interval. Phil was less sure, thinking it needed a bit of a snip here and there. The whole play turned out to be 20 minutes longer than the stated 2hrs 25minutes in the programme, but perhaps this was in keeping with one of the themes which may have been the blurring of fact and fiction, imagination and reality.

Anyway, what follows is a thrilling onion peeling in reverse whereby each “real” story is revealed to be enclosed by another story in a Kaufmanesque journey which references Eisenstein, Macguffin and Peter Fincham along the way for good measure.

The early use of video prompted fears that it was going to follow an irretrievably Katie Mitchell course but thankfully Goold and Power have drawn on a much wider range of tricks.

Indeed it’s “excess all areas” as Goold throws in everything including something approximating to a kitchen sink (an aquarium to be precise) in which a character rather spectacularly drowns.

Andrew was particularly impressed, his mind by now so thoroughly fried that he (unlike everyone else) couldn’t work out quite how it was done. Phil is encouraging him to work it out by trying it at home.

But it was one visually arresting coup (brilliant design/lighting/music and sound by Miriam Buether/Malcolm Rippeth/Adam Cork respectively) in an evening of many but strangely only when one of the characters arrived on one roller skate did it stray on the wrong side of gimmicky.

In keeping with all the trickery Phil became convinced that Patrick Stewart was sitting in the seat in front of him. He wasn’t. But bizarrely – as though conjured up by Phil’s feeble imagination – Mr Stewart was sitting in the audience two rows behind the Whingers and their entourage.

Odder still, in this updated version of 6CISOAA there were a reference to the various Hamlets (Danish setting remember) coming to London soon including the David Tennant version which features Stewart as Claudius. AND Stewart played Macbeth (also a Chichester Festival Theatre transfer) also directed by Goold AND in the Gielgud Theatre last year. Mind-mangling stuff. Is he part of the show?

Towards the end of 6CISOAA The Producer (Noma Dumezweni – excellent) is challenged about her own reality: does she exist without the 500 people she has logged in her phone address book? Phil has often mused over Andrew’s curious Facebook obsession. Would Andrew exist if it were not for the 151 “friends” he has amassed? Phil invites Andrew’s “friends” to take part in a little experiment: when you’ve finished reading this, drop him as your Facebook friend and see if he ceases to exist. Was he perhaps just a Facebook fiction created by his “friends”?

Challenging and entertaining stuff then and some sterling performances (not least from the redoubtable Ian McDiarmid) but stripping the many layers back almost did the Whingers’ heads in. It was almost as confusing as trying to understand what’s currently happening to the economy.

Retiring to a nearby watering hole after the show, actors from the play appeared. Had the performance finished? Were they actors? Were they characters? Was this yet another of the multiple endings? Had Goold delivered a final genius conceit?

But more importantly, did the Whingers ever exist? Answers on a postcard please to prove that they do really exist, or more optimistically, don’t.


*These doubts were first raised the other week when the Whingers bumped into critic-turned-academic Karen Fricker in a pub in Covent Garden.

“Do your personae ever get in the way of your own responses?” she enquired.

Phil played for time and pretended to tie his shoelace (a ploy somewhat undermined by the fact that he was wearing elasticated plimsolls).

Andrew pretended to think deeply about the question.

After two minutes of silence Ms Fricker tactfully rephrased her enquiry using shorter words. “Do you ever think, ‘no, that’s not what the Whingers would think’?” she asked.

** What a great name – Ben Power! Sounds a bit like the name of a gay porn star (we imagine). It also reminds us of the episode of The Simpsons in which Homer changes his name to Max Power in order to improve his prospects:

Trent:         Oh, hey!  Great name!
Homer:         Yeah, isn't it?  I got it off a hair dryer.

And it works:

Homer:    [singing] Max Power, he's the man who's name you'd love to
          touch!  But you mustn't touch!  His name sounds good in your
          ear, but when you say it, you mustn't fear!  'Cause his name
          can be said by anyone!
Burns:    Ah!  Max Power!  How's every little thing?
Homer:    You remembered my name!
Burns:    Well, who could forget the name of a magnetic individual like
          you?  Keep up the good work, Max!
Homer:    Mr. Power.
Burns:    Yes, of course.  Mr. Power.

6 Responses to “Review – Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Gielgud Theatre”

  1. she with he of Xanadu on stage seating Says:

    Curiouser and curiouser, I thought I had Simon Schama sitting behind me on the night I went. It may be a little comfort to Andrew to know that, contrary to popular belief, not “everybody” can work out how the drowning is done, (I shall sit in the corner). Thought Noma Dumezweni was particularly splendid, the only down-side of the evening is that Yentob is going to be even more arrogant than ever after having a name check on the West End stage.

  2. Karen F Says:

    … and here I was thinking that seeing Kevin Spacey fall on Alan Ayckbourn was going to be the highlight of my theatre week, and then I get name-checked by the Whingers! I’m as giddy as a schoolgirl.

    I’m sorry if my questions sent you into an existential tailspin but it seems as if you recovered your senses of selves quickly enough.

    I can’t let the opportunity go by without fretting in your direction that you may have not gotten the best angle on the Ayckbourn plays. Living Together is by far the weakest of the three plays and seen on its own I’m not surprised it came across as pointless and a bit boring. But the whole day, seen in order, I found utterly sublime — I doubt I can convince you to go back (particularly with trilogy tix at 100 quid a pop) but I did want to put a plug in.

  3. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Karen we feel it’s far to big a risk to invest in the full gamut of The Norman Conquests, we understood they could be appreciated individually, but a bit of a mystery to us that one could be that much weaker than the rest.

    And are schoolgirls especially giddy ? The Whingers have little contact with them and of course it’s years since Andrew wore a pinafore dress and had midnight feasts in the dorm.

    But we are of course delighted you’re delighted, and judging by your response assume that perhaps we do, after all exist.

  4. Lia Says:

    My entourage and I don’t agree that Norma Dumezweni was excellent – in fact we thought quite the opposite, that she was hammy. However maybe we caught her on an off day – perhaps she’s exhausted from carrying that small boy around for what seemed like hours on end. Or perhaps wandering onto the set of Les Mis has scarred her for life…

    In any case, we found the production mind-boggling but enjoyable, although we felt there were a few too many gimmicks and layers, and not enough getting the point across.

  5. Graham Says:

    Mr Goold’s next project should be a docu-drama of the Whingers’ lives. With Helen Mirren portraying Andrew and Phil played by Ian McKellan (although he’ll have to ‘age-up’ a bit).

  6. Jonathan Says:

    Well we actually did have Nigel Planer sitting in front of us (I think…)
    enjoyed the evening although fairly baffled by some of twists and plays within plays. Second half better than first

    But we saw it the day before it closed so this may not be of much help to anyone

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