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

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum