Adventures in Theatreland: Plays get serious again

Not enough straight plays in the West End? Not so, says Paul Taylor – a new version of Pirandello's 'Six Characters' is starting a serious revolution
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First question: how do you adapt a play like Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author so that it is refreshed and reinvigorated by being brought up to speed with techniques and technologies that have sprung since the author's own day? That's a tricky enough proposition. But now elide that problem with a second question, which is: how, in a commercial theatre culture that is increasingly reliant on musicals, do you get your adaptation into the West End and convince your target audiences that Shaftesbury Avenue – a thoroughfare that often, theatrically speaking, could be called the Street of Shame – is now the coolest of drags where it's worth braving the civic squalor for bold experimentation?

You may think this a challenge akin to having a Rubik's cube thrust into both your hands, while a gun is held to your head by the friendly, neighbourhood bank manager who wants two solutions fast. But director Rupert Goold, with his co-adaptor, Ben Power, seems to have got it sorted – in collaboration with Jonathan Church, artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre, where this multi-media Six Characters began its exciting, risky, controversial life in the summer, and commercial producers Michael Edwards and Carole Winter, of MJE productions.

It helps that the 36-year-old Goold is, deservedly, regarded as red-hot stuff at the moment, not least because of his recent stunning Macbeth – Soviet state-meets-The Shining down in creepy dungeon of a kitchen – which starred Patrick Stewart and Goold's wife Kate Fleetwood. This Shakespeare production went on exactly the same journey – a leap from the Minerva to the West End – that is now being made by Pirandello and Six Characters. And it's not as if this great Italian dramatist is making his debut in this sector.

But his brand of drama – brainy but bleeding; high-concept and tricksy, but driven by the demons of dread about the tottering of reason – has tended to be cushioned commercially by big names and acts of camouflage. In 2003 Franco Zeffirelli, no less, directed Joan Plowright in a production of Pirandello's Right You Are If You Think So, at Wyndham's Theatre; perhaps to disguise its true nature from the casual observer, it was given a rather arch and middlebrow title, Absolutely (perhaps) – to which anyone with any real taste would have responded in kind and pace Groucho Marx: "Hello, I must be going." Even more recently in 2005, Kristin Scott Thomas was sensational as an amnesiac nightclub singer in an opulent staging of As You Desire, at the Playhouse by the Embankment; but not all big names are an asset – in the same play, Bob Hoskins was far from sensational.

But this production of Six Characters does not come bristling with the kind of stars who could seduce anyone not positively in intensive care into the theatre. It has very good actors, and one great actor who interestingly straddles different markets. This is Ian McDiarmid. To filmgoers, he's Supreme Chancellor Palpatine in the Star Wars movies. To theatre aficionados, he's the man who ran the Almeida with Jonathan Kent during the 1990s, transforming it from an obscure fringe venue to one of London's most fashionable theatres. These two have been crucial figures in the ongoing battle to put red-blooded classic and modern drama back on the map.

In the late 1990s, Kent and McDiarmid pulled off a feat that seemed counter-intuitive in the climate of the time. Superbly ignoring the tat around them, they did Racine proud in the heart of Theatreland with complementary productions of Britannicus and Phedre, starring Diana Rigg and Toby Stephens. Now, Kent – after a spell directing opera – is back at the heart of the establishment, having just completed the first year of his resident directorship at the Haymarket.

British theatre, of which Theatreland is rarely the flag-ship, is a talented, self-sustaining family with a host of fertile interconnections. Just as this Six Characters hits Shaftesbury Avenue, Michael Grandage – for whom McDiarmid has often worked, starring in his superb production of Pirandello's Henry IV – is taking the Donmar into the West End with a residency at Wyndham's where he will be providing a seriously nutritious diet of plays (Ivanov, Madame de Sade, Twelfth Night, Hamlet) and the mouth-watering prospect of performance from Judi Dench, Jude Law and Kenneth Branagh, who has been appointed as his associate for the duration.

So Six Characters arrives when there seems to be the stirring of something very positive in Theatreland as well as theatre. And all honour to Cameron Mackintosh for electing to give the Gielgud a firm identity as a place for lovers of plays. What are the chances of Six Characters vindicating his trust, artistically and commercially? With regard to both aspects, McDiarmid is key. As has been proved by the ballyhooed and bally brilliant production of Hamlet, starring David Tennant and due to come into London later this year, it's simply snobbish to suppose that audiences fall neatly into categories. You can be a fan of Doctor Who and an enthralled newcomer to Shakespeare – there's nothing to stop you, other than the pusillanimity of producers. True, Pirandello is more of an acquired taste, but having seen and loved this adaptation in Chichester a couple of months ago, I feel very optimistic that it will do well.

Goold and Power have worked together on earlier thrilling projects – an adaptation of Paradise Lost that accommodated the poem's sci-fi scale and massive imaginative in Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton, and an adaptation of Marlowe's Dr Faustus that skipped between the world of the Renaissance over-reacher and the world of contemporary Brit art and found fascinating correspondences between the sacrilege of selling your soul to the devil and the hubris of the Chapman brothers, who desecrated a precious print series of Goya's Massacres of War in order to make a not very profound point that could have been expressed in theory.

In their update of the Pirandello, it's not a play that is interrupted by the six characters who have been stranded in the limbo of incomplete fictionalisation by their author, and so have ripped themselves from his page and trooped on to the stage in desperate desire for the vindication that comes from being witnessed and developed. Instead, they trespass into an editing suite where a team of documentary makers are fractiously attempting to finish and fine-tune a drama documentary about a dying teenage boy and euthanasia. The ontological puzzles in the Pirandello become enmeshed in a debate about the ethics of using actors in drama docs and the degree to which distortion may paradoxically be legitimate in the effort to present not just reality but truth.

The adaptation was partly inspired by the movie Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary whose makers only stumbled on their real subject (sexual abuse by the father of the family) while they were filming what they thought was going to be a movie about a well-known clown. This sends a probe deep into the roots of Pirandello's drama, though it will certainly offend the tidy-minded. One fascinating question will be resolved on the press night. At Chichester, one of the characters was filmed stumbling with a dying boy in her arms into the "Seventy-Six Trombones" finale of the production of The Music Man in the main house. How will they reproduce that effect on Shaftesbury Avenue. Hang on. No, they won't, will they? Why is the word "barricades" floating into my mind?

'Six Characters in Search of an Author', Gielgud Theatre, London W1 (0844 482 5130), to 8 November