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The Elusive Reality of Theatre

Words / Tung Ka WaiTranslate / Tung Ka Wai, Tan Ning Xin

- Review of Six Characters In Search Of An Author (SIFA 2015) 

French director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota returns to direct Six Characters In Search of An Author which premiered in 2001 and toured in 2002. After 13 long years, this production finally arrives on our shores. In the director’s message, he explained his approach to this performance, 13 years later and in his third time on Six Characters, he hoped to “return to its origins, to see if [he] could find that energy [they] had as young people and that emotional savagery the show had at its creation.”

A renowned classic by Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters is an influential work in the history of theatre. It tells the story of an Artistic Team rehearsing a play on the stage, which is quickly interrupted by some mysterious guests. These guests proclaim to be Characters from an unfinished play and are here in search for an author to finish their life stories. The fascination with which the Artistic Team held for these Characters’ emotive stories eventually led them to replace their own play with the Characters’! We see the unravelling of the Characters’ tangled web of relationships as they reenact their stories. The Characters believe they are the only source of reality as they are playing themselves and no actors can come close in their portrayal. However, the Artistic Team thinks otherwise. As the story comes to a climax, the characters suddenly disappear into thin air. The artistic team is left bewildered, unable to decipher the validity of the whole incident. 

An Unrealistic Reality

Demarcy-Mota’s direction focused on the theme of metatheatre and the dialectic discourse of reality and fiction. Six Characters remains a classic because it brings to fore the limits of drama’s imitation of reality. When the Artistic Team is rehearsing their initial play, the actors are just thoughtless beings, mechanically reading lines, as if they were puppets. To exacerbate the ridiculousness of the situation, the “director” even instructs the actors to feel the egg shells breaking up into bits, while enacting the beating of eggs on stage. What is the purpose for such rendition of “reality”? Art originates from life, but it is also higher than life. We strive to present the reality on stage but not the mundanity of reality. With the introduction of this Artistic Team, Demarcy-Mota has shown us how a pursuit of extreme reality can land us far away from reality itself. This sets up a good contrast with the arrival of the Characters later. The Characters are of course, fictional, yet they embody much realism compared to the Artistic Team. 

A Realistic Imitation

Many audience may have been intrigued by the Artistic Team imitating the Characters, especially the iconic scene between the Father and Daughter. Every line and gesture made by the actors from the Artistic Team is met with ridicule and disdain from the Characters, who believe that the actors will never capture their essence. Imitation at its best will never achieve reality. This may be true to a certain extent. However, does this mean the originator/creator holds the absolute reign over their portrayal/work? Roland Barthes’s essay, “The Death of the Author”, may be an attempt to empower the work itself, for it to rise to its own reality. In demonstrating his clear awareness of this relationship between imitation and reality, Demarcy-Mota added another two actors to try out a snippet of the same scene. The re-enactment was so realistic that took everyone by surprise including the Characters. This may be an imitation in which actors captured the essence. The Father and Daughter can only agree in silence. Demarcy-Mota’s adaptation brings imitation and reality ever closer together, blurring the lines between and forces us to view it not as a binary or dichotomy. An inadequate imitation may be a farce, but an excellent imitation can easily challenge the “reality” of its originator.       

Reality Evolves Into Drama

As the Father and Daughter tell the past through their reenactments, they reveal the root of their estranged relationship: Father had unknowingly slept with Daughter during a visit to the brothel. To emphasise the impact of their incestuous act, Demarcy-Mota had the actress playing Daughter to expose her upper body during the climatic revealing scene. This adds on to the realism of this family tragedy. The Mother has to be carried away as she cannot bear to witness this horrible act. The cathartic scene had audiences absorbed in its dramatic atmosphere. At this critical juncture, we were rudely awakened from the theatrical illusion with something akin to a tight slap, when the Director yells “Bravo!”. To the Director, who was able to maintain his rationality throughout, this tragedy is merely fiction, even if it has originated from reality. Such a tragic incident is no doubt excellent content for drama. The Director’s unwitting comment is a timely warning to us that this is just a rehearsal. 

In Conclusion…

Demarcy-Mota’s Six Characters has succeeded in exhibiting the intricacies and ambiguities of drama and imitation in one hand, and reality and fiction on the other. As an audience, one is constantly absorbed into the theatrical illusion of the family tragedy, only to be pulled back to reality by the Artistic Team throughout the whole performance.

However, this staging seemed to have oversimplified the complexities of the family struggle. Aside from the Father and Daughter, the rest of the family members’ seemed lacking in depth. A glaring example would be in Act 3, where a big portion of the Son’s segment was cut and part of the lines given to Daughter instead, increasing her importance in the play. The original play had given a fairer share for most of the family members to express their perspectives of the story. While there may only be one reality but every family member holds onto a different truth. In Act 2, Father’s perspective is constantly challenged by Daughter, culminating in a standoff. In Act 3, we hear the Son’s perspective and learn the reason for his evasive demeanour. This staging has weakened the original set up in Act 3. Character details were sacrificed for a quicker pace of narration. I think this adaptation needs more deliberation but it may just be a matter of opinion.

The play also ended rather hastily – the Younger Son shoots himself, followed by the Daughter shouting “Reality! Fiction!”, while running around on the stage before the Characters disappeared from the stage. However, the Younger Daughter was left on the pond. She remained there even when the Artistic Team realised their departure and reclaimed the stage. (Is this a technical fault for that particular performance?) The overly dramatic mise en scène in the ending seemed unrealistic and out of place.

Altogether, this staging is still a rather faithful attempt at interpreting the European classic. The theme of Reality versus Fiction may seem cliché but one just needs to look at the burgeoning of reality TV shows and the convenience of accessing the virtual world of the Internet.  The topic is actually not that distant from us. We can even expect new adaptations which may utilise the use of multimedia art, technology art and puppets to explore the contemporary significance of this monumental text – to address the reality and fiction of our times.   

arrow  Continue reading on Issue 8 / December 2015:The Courage To Go Against The Current