Six Characters in Search of an Author - interview with cast and crew
Six thespians in search of an answer
Kirstin Innes talks to the cast and crew of a new production of Six Characters In Search of An Author
Trying to get to the nub of Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 absurdist classic Six Characters In Search of An Author is an infuriating, intellectually taxing, challenging and rewarding process. Essentially, six characters – fictional characters, but somehow living and breathing – descend upon an ordinary theatre where a rehearsal is taking place, and hijack the play demanding to have their own, tragic, human, story told. Each of their interpretations of that story throws up a different, conflicting viewpoint.
As a new version of the play goes on tour round the country, heavy with Scottish theatrical talent (adapted by David Harrower, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland in association with the Lyceum and Citizens’ Theatres, featuring an 18-strong ensemble cast of some of the best actors in the country), The List decided to ask six of the people behind the production to help us pin it down. Well, it seemed like a straightforward idea at the time . . .
David Harrower adapted the text from the original by Pirandello
I was asked to adapt Six Characters for the Young Vic in 2000. I hadn’t read any Pirandello before, and I did it because I needed the money, but I did become intrigued by the play. When I was approached by the NTS to revive it, I went back over the script and realised that I’d really misinterpreted some of the play.
I think some people might be bemused by it, some people might be infuriated by it. It hasn’t been staged here for a very long time, and although it’s hailed as a classic, it’s not often done.
There’s an absence of Author – of the Author who deserted the Characters. I don’t know why he did that. Perhaps he realised he didn’t have enough talent to see their story through. Perhaps he decided that the story was shit. These are thoughts that are never far from my mind about my own work. While being an author and writing for a missing Author isn’t really a self-conscious position to work from, it does force you to ask questions about how you present this stuff in your own work.
The leading man
Ron Donachie plays The Father
Despite the fact that Six Characters has a reputation for being complicated, I think it’s actually relatively straightforward. It stems from the chaos of the aftermath of the First World War, a completely fractured society looking for some solutions to their problems that exist, and it also stems from the huge explosion in psychological debate that was taking place across the West at that time. So it asks straightforward and absolutely fundamental questions, which are sophisticated, but not complicated. It asks the questions: ‘How do I exist?’, and ‘How do I relate to other people?’ And those seem to me to be the fundamental questions that theatre should always be asking.
Funnily enough – and by chance, I think, rather than design – there have been echoes of those themes right through the Lyceum’s season this year. You have similar questions being asked in A Winter’s Tale, about reality and representation and how people perceive the past and how it acts on the present, while both Living Quarters and The Glass Menagerie are very carefully constructed around how people want their stories to be told. If Pirandello hadn’t written Six Characters, all the other 20th century plays that come out of that tradition might never have happened. It’s an absolutely iconoclastic work.
The grande dame
Una MacLean plays Madame Pace
What’s interesting about this play is that you never know whether what’s happening is the truth or a fake. There are the Actors, there are the Characters, and I am neither of these. I inhabit a character who is a surprise – I come and I turn out not to be what I initially seem. The cast is exciting, too – so many good Scottish actors.
Mark Thomson is the director
We decided on Six Characters for a number of reasons. The idea of a stage rehearsal being invaded by characters is still brilliant and fresh – despite it being a 90-year-old play. Interestingly, there’s no character in the script who’s called by a name – they all have roles, you know, Mother, Father, Step-Daughter, Director – and each role is very, very clearly defined, each of these people driving these stereotypes, but in a very rich fashion. What you get played out on stage is a kind of horrible dystopian drama of misunderstanding, inability to be understood, inability to feel a full human being or a full character. And that, I think, is something everybody can identify with – we’ve all had moments of quiet where we feel very unfulfilled or insubstantial. And I think the play tackles that head on, that question of who am I and what am I for?
The rising star
Andrew Scott Ramsay plays The Son
Working on this production has been an absolute pleasure – it’s very exciting for me, just a year out of drama school, to be part of a cast stuffed full of the great and good of Scottish theatre.
Despite the fact that I am playing a Character who is – well, the whole point is that he’s fictional – for me the natural way to approach the role, and the most interesting, was empathetically. I’m playing him as a person, not as a type – it’s the relationships between the Characters that make the play interesting. That’s what keeps the Characters alive, and stuck perpetually in their drama.
There are long points when The Son is silent, refusing him to be realised, and the only things that keep him alive, keep him existing as a character in the drama are his relationships with other people.
Vicky Featherstone is artistic director of National Theatre of Scotland
Six Characters is part of a loose strand of productions that we’re going to put on at the National Theatre of Scotland, the first of which was Schiller’s Mary Stuart (also adapted by Harrower) – these big, classic European plays that Scottish audiences haven’t had a chance to see recently. We’ve commissioned other new versions of classic works, which we’ll be putting on over the next 18 months. These plays are written for bigger casts, so in very simple terms, they cost more money for theatres to put on; NTS is in a position to offer Scottish audiences that opportunity.
I first read Six Characters at college, and I loved the fantastic game at its heart, the dark, complex, brilliant game that it plays on the audience. All these plays have an urgency about them, still – a reason why they ought to be being put on stages today.
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, Fri 15 Feb–Sat 8 Mar; Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, Wed 12–Fri 29 Mar.