Theatre Review: Six Characters in Search of an Author
*****- Don’t read this review: instead go out and see this play.
Six Characters in Search of An Author, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Tuesday 20th –Saturday 24th October
I am still shaking. I don’t want to come across as hysterical, but after the evening I have just left, well, I am.
‘Six Characters in Search of An Author’ is, without a doubt, the best piece of theatre I have ever seen. And I do really like going to the theatre. I have been put in a snow globe, shaken up, turned inside out, upside down and then left a bit wobbly to question the reality of everything. This play leaves no stone unturned – it wavers from incest to euthanasia to suicide to murder to revenge to the nature of truth and then back again in a funny, terrifying and altogether phenomenal few hours. Four people walked out and I can see why, everyone else was left gasping for breath and I think I was the last one to recompose myself. Don’t read on if you have any faith in me – with tickets starting at £10, go see it.
The play opens in a stark, neon lit office to see a group of filmmakers looking back over clips of their study of a fourteen year old boy’s contemplation with euthanasia. It ends back in that office and your not really sure if all you have just seen really happened. Nor is anyone on stage. The first 15 minutes do require a little bit of patience, Gina Bramhill’s initially nauseating performance as the stepdaughter smacks of someone just left drama school, slutting her way around while her mother, played by Hazel Holder whines irritatingly. But oh my does it all fall into place – the six anonymous characters who walk into the scene like ghostly figures insisting that the film crew record their story persuade them to do so. As to what their story actually was I had no idea, thought I had figured it out and now am once again lost. Whilst everything in front of you is absolute madness the actors incredibly realistic performances carry you every nail biting second of the way, with Catherine McCormack as the Producer in charge showing determination, exhaustion and fear with all the conviction imaginable when other characters are conjured from under the bed to molest little girls. And it gets far more bizarre. The interesting narrative of the euthanasia documentary drama that I momentarily mourned for is replaced by the whirlwind story of a family’s struggles with their past – one of abandonment, sexual abuse and betrayal. They insist in re-enacting their own past, rather than have actors step in which climaxes in an agonizing scene with the stepfather undressing and seducing his stepdaughter whilst the crew film events. The crew begs for it to stop and the audience is begging for it to stop but the producer insists it carries on. This play in so many ways does what theatre is supposed to do, pushing boundaries and making the audience challenge truths. Rupert Goold’s direction builds tension until you can take no more using every theatrical technique of a stunning set and lighting and music that sends such shivers down your spine one is left physically reeling. Never have I not wanted the interval curtain to come down so badly and when it did my mouth stayed open for a very long time.
When you didn’t think it could push things any further the second half inverts everything set up in the first and almost everything I ever thought I knew. The Producer’s reality turns out to be entirely abstract and we watch as she is forced to say out loud that if it wasn’t for other people’s affirmation of her existence there is nothing to prove she is anything at all. She watches the death of two people we thought were alive – one drowning in a fish tank and the other stabbing himself as dance music booms, lights flash and you can no longer feel your pulse. It turns out she is a subject of a documentary herself and no one can actually communicate with her in any real way – the other characters eerily stand over her struggles to keep the boy alive. She wails ‘he’s dying’ and they respond ‘he always is’. Whilst my attention didn’t waver for a second the voice in the back of my head at this point had reached quite a pitch in frustratingly asking ‘Seriously now, what the fuck is going on?’ Suddenly everyone was dressed in old-fashioned clothes, talking Italian and the boy who was up for euthanasia in the first place in quoting Hamlet soliloquies. I was lost but frankly pleased I hadn’t had a heart attack.
Am I provoked? I go to bed with only life’s most minor questions reverberating fast around my head: Is euthanasia right? Do men have a sexual desire that needs to be fulfilled? Do filmmakers have a responsibility to honour their subjects above all? How can we use first hand narration without any subjectivity? How do we know we actually exist? Can we ever prevent or intervene with death? Did I just dream that whole bizarre, fantastic, brave evening? And so many more. I think I might be up some time.