In the concluding scenes of the 1935 Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera, Groucho, Harpo and Chico run amok in a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, testing the director and his company to breaking point as they undermine the melodrama of the work and sabotage the very mechanics of the stage.
Though it is not often that you hear of the Marx Brothers being discussed in the context of metatheatre, I was strongly reminded of the anarchic potency of this sequence, and the potential for comedy to disrupt our expectations, when watching Théâtre de la Ville-Paris staging of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Barbican Centre.
The play begins with a company rehearsing for a performance of Pirandello’s The Rules of the Game, when work is interrupted by the arrival of a family who petition the director with an unusual request. They are characters in an unfinished tragedy, the writer having abandoned their narrative, and need find a new author who can finish their story in order that they complete themselves.
This evocative production in French with English surtitles, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, holds true to the original text, playing consciously with the layering of tragedy and comedy in order to deconstruct our perception of events, as well as subvert our investment in the fictions presented for our pleasure. Although Pirandello’s masterwork is often presented as an exercise in theatre theory, this contemporary reading draws upon the often overlooked emotional resonance of the characters, emphasising the shifting, unstable, power relations between the director and his staff in response the arrival of the outsiders.
Of particular note is the ethereal, dream-like quality of the presentation, with warm lighting projected largely from the wings and a rolling soundscape throughout, so as to compose a vivid, cinematic experience. The unfolding phantasmagoria points to the theatre as a space for the unexpected, a site for associations and misinterpretations, the staging largely sparse, with moments of destabilising intensity given over to haunting sequences where ghostly figures are formed from coats and trees descend inverted. These potent visual signs evoke the work of the Surrealists, reminiscent of the paintings of Rene Magritte, but perhaps best contextualised through the writings of Andre Breton and the search for a profound truth.
This search for, and subsequent the failure to discover, resolution is that which the production so intensely captures. Each character in the family presents his or her trauma, building to an emotional crescendo, only to be undermined by the subsequent retelling of their experiences by the company of actors, which are deemed to be inadequate stand-ins for the true potency that they alone possess. I found myself compelled to buy into the histories presented by the family, to feel an emotional response to the tragic tales reminisced, only to be left reeling as the drama is disrupted by a one liner or slapstick gag, revealing the fictive powers of the stage and our desire to find some resonance in the representations paraded before our eyes.
It is this questioning of what constitutes the real that remained with me afterwards. Walking home in the cold chill and lurid lamplight of the London streets I wondered who these people were passing me by, the stories they could tell, bound to their roles they imagined made them distinct, and whether now, in the world of social media posturing, we are not all merely acting out a desired reflection, shadows of our own fantasies. Perhaps in this world of self-construction, the theatre may yet offer a refuge from these delusions.