OTR review: 6 Characters in Search of an Author
All actors play characters. But what of the characters themselves, laughing in the shadows at their pathetic impersonations? In Joseph Cunningham’s chilling investigation of the nature of theatre, a director […]
All actors play characters. But what of the characters themselves, laughing in the shadows at their pathetic impersonations? In Joseph Cunningham’s chilling investigation of the nature of theatre, a director pays the price for misunderstanding the reality of fiction. The play delineates the discrepancy between the changing world of rehearsals and pizza, and the unsettling realm of immutable fictional shades. As the two meet and are gradually enfolded by each other, chaos ensues.
It would be impossible to do this play justice without adopting a somewhat academic tone, so if this gets pretentious, blame Pirandello. The appearance of the Characters leads the audience on a playful dance through narrative layers, breaking the fourth wall (and then a few more walls beyond that). We move from a naturalistic portrayal of a theatre group in crisis, to the story of the intruding Characters; then we are led to believe that the play is over, only for the Characters to appear again. The audience questions whether it is still an audience, or whether it is itself playing a part within the plot.
Most of this effect hinges on the establishment of the Characters’ identity. Cunningham’s superb direction demonstrates their otherworldly existence by casting their painted faces in a ghostly green light. Although the theatricality of the Characters could have been even more exaggerated, grandiose gestures, disturbing mechanical movement and frozen, melancholic gazes make plain that in their theatricality they are ‘utterly, irreducibly’ themselves. ‘That’s naturalism!’ cries an outraged actor as the Characters mock his realist performance; ‘it isn’t very natural at all’, comes the response.
Cunningham writes in a delicious morsel of a scene in which his own explanation of the play is interrupted by the arrival of the sinister Characters (now the director is an actor playing the character of himself – keep up). This scene folds into a self-mocking satire of the pretentiousness of postmodern theatre, in which the Characters gleefully hack two pseudo-intellectual hipsters down with a meat cleaver. Then Hamlet turns up wearing a floaty blouse and a necklace of shrunken heads (I suspect the laughter at his absurd appearance was not intended by the director) and the play culminates in a soliloquy on the insufficiency of the actor in portraying character.
At times I felt that the relentless movement into new narrative planes was something of a gimmick, and the point was sometimes laboured to the degree that the performance lagged, especially in the first act. However, Cunningham’s adaptation kept the play feeling fresh, with the odd reference to St Andrews – ‘The Byre closed! Bloody Venue 1!’ – making the audience even more uncomfortable as to what it was that they were actually watching.
The play reaches its chilling crescendo as we enter the second and final moment of the Characters’ story. Charlotte Kelly’s performance here, as her character realizes the unreliability of her identity, instilled genuine terror into the audience. David Portmore, as the domineering and bombastic Father, was slick and assured, Josephine Wolfe was restlessly energetic as the unhinged Stepdaughter, and Alexandra Koronai-Kiss’s ghostly movement, unearthly singing and ear-splitting shrieks recalled the Woman in Black.
I fear that the phantom figures of the trapped Characters will continue to haunt me. Cunningham’s hope that his play would leave audiences ‘shaken and drained’ has, like the characters’ story, been disturbingly fulfilled.
Headline image ©Gala Netylko