By BRUCE DENNILL
6 Characters In Search Of An Author / Directed by Sibusiso Mamba / Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg
It was a strange strategy in 1921, when Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello wrote and first staged this piece, and it’s a strange strategy now: purposefully alienating the audience you need in the theatre in order make a play a success by musing on the nature of theatre in an absurdist way, and throwing in a dark tragedy to boot.
This play has divided audiences and commentators for nearly a century, and it is precisely its power to do so in such an enduring manner that makes it great. Sibusiso Mamba, directing his first piece for the Market Theatre, has added plenty of South African flavour to his adaptation, and has been careful to do so in a way that makes the theatre-versus-reality aspect more relevant to those watching, rather than annoyingly navel-gazing. This includes adding well-known entertainment personalities Desmond Dube and Kate Normington playing scripted versions of themselves. These actors’ foibles and mannerisms are well enough known that the sense of familiarity they inspire is at once comforting and then, when things take an unexpected turn, rather baffling.
The play begins with choreographed chaos as ticket-holders wander into a theatre apparently ill-prepared for them and a cast without a director or, apparently, a clue. On Dube’s arrival (he plays the director), they organise themselves just enough to attempt a fumbled run-through of another Pirandello play, The Rules Of The Game, but are interrupted by the arrival of a family from another era, who proclaim themselves the eponymous characters, left in limbo while they were being created by an author who failed to complete their narrative, forcing them to perpetually repeat the same few interactions.
It’s a fascinating, engrossing concept, particularly because it’s inferred that the absent author abandoned his characters because he didn’t want them (or himself) to be exposed to any more of the pain he’d dreamed up, not realising that his tactic would be a damning one.
The pacing of the piece is uneven, which is unsurprising given that it has a split narrative with its threads somewhat inconsistently woven together. But the whole idea is by design, so while this aspect is frustrating, it also feels genuine.
David Butler is excellent as the nominal father figure of the late arrivals, with Chantal Stanfield matching him phrase for phrase as his understandably combative step-daughter. Of the modern-day contingent, Mamba leads from the front, throwing himself headlong into the play’s more farcical sequences. That utter slapstick, placed against the abject gloom of some of the other scenes, means that audiences find themselves laughing like hyenas one minute and struggling with lumps in their throat another, further heightening the uneasiness Pirandelli intended them to feel.
Such writing – and imagination – remains an astonishing achievement, but were the story shoddily performed, it’d be completely wasted. Mamba and his cast have veered wonderfully the other way, imbuing the script with bewildering, vibrant life and leaving onlookers as vauguely disturbed at the end as they were at the beginning, if considerable enriched for all that was experienced in the intervening hours.