In Rupert Goold and Ben Powers very free adaptation of Pirandellos modernist classic, the rehearsal space in which the original was set has been replaced by a blank, bland urban office. In this office a team of film makers are in a quandary over a documentary they are making about a euthanasia clinic in Denmark. They question how much re-enacted footage they can included before it stops being a drama-documentary and starts being a docu-drama, they worry about what the story is they are trying to tell, they worry about how to find a dramatically satisfying ending.
It is into this scenario that Pirandellos sextet of characters stride, dressed in mourning clothes, seeking an author to tell their story. There is the domineering father and his angry, accusing stepdaughter; a mother, with her face hidden behind dark glasses; a nervy son, who clutches a book and turns his back on the others; and a young boy and girl, both silent.
The characters story is a sordid, tangled thing, one of illegitimacy and infidelity, of an illicit sexual encounter in a grubby room above a hat-makers shop. It is a tale full of twists and turns and emotional drama, and, after some persuasion, the characters convince the documentary producer (played by Noma Dumezweni) to tell it. A set is constructed a set within a set and they begin to film. But the characters baulk at having their story told by actors, despite the actors insistence that they will capture the essence of the characters, that their performance will be somehow realer, and the characters eventually win the fight to play themselves.
Goolds production, a transfer from Chichester where it was a hit this summer, is risk-taking and ambitious, though the results, while sometimes inspired, are sometimes a little too self-consciously clever to be truly enjoyable. Ian McDiarmid, whose illness earlier in the run caused cancellations, is now recovered and is superbly sinister as the father, veering from eccentric gent to something far more demonic as the play progresses. Denise Gough is also impressive as the wronged step-daughter and Adam Corks sound design is particularly striking and memorable, moving gradually from muddy, naturalism to operatic cacophony, over the course of the first half.
The production shifts in tone after the interval; the understood realities of the earlier scenes have been removed and the documentary producer is plunged into a hell of self-questioning, a limbo state. The characters explain that those who live in the imagination live forever so who is more real, them or her? The mood becomes darker as layer after layer of reality is stripped away and the play turns in on itself, curling itself into tighter and tighter coils. In the process the audience are treated to some lovely theatrical in-jokery and a couple of genuine jolts.
But the trouble with this kind of self-referential, self-dissecting, self-digesting approach is that it works best on the medium in question and by drawing documentary and film into the mix, the waters are somewhat dirtied. Also their attempt to give the character of the producer a back-story, to give her some shape, some drive, doesnt really work, as the very structure of the piece seems to argue against it. Instead, as she charges through the theatre sobbing, searching for help and answers, she reminds one, more than anything else, of the ‘final girl’ in an old school horror movie.
These quibbles aside, this is a challenging and exciting piece, more thrilling than one might expect an intellectual exercise of this kind to be. Goold and Power manage to stay true to the subversive qualities of Pirandellos original while gleefully twisting the material to their own ends, creating something new and invigorating in the process.