So, what's the story? We're getting used to asking this question, to thinking in terms of digestible narrative. It seems that life's not only a pitch nowadays, but a plausible story. Politicians have stopped fighting the media, but now embrace the demand for constructing a clearly defined sequence. Across the Atlantic, election punditry has repeatedly looked at which candidate has shaped the strongest story: a version of their lives that settles into a compelling narrative arc (lacking only the third-act denouement on November 4). In what we used to consider our real lives too, we are encouraged to build accounts of ourselves for job interviews or first dates which give direction to the formless rush of experience.
Everyone fashions themselves into stories - but are they deceptively conventional ones? Watching an audacious new version of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author earlier today, I was struck by the way the production nailed a pressure for people to reveal their individual souls in almost formulaic ways.
The production, by the prolific and imaginative Rupert Goold (best known for directing Macbeth with Patrick Stewart in Chichester, London and New York) heavily adapts Pirandello's 1921 classic (the text is by Good and Ben Power). The 'characters' (a family with a traumatic sexual secret) now erupt into a modern team of documentary filmmakers. The film's producer describes herself as a 'narrative junkie,' but those narratives are not unmediated, undirected. Even as dramatic reconstruction weaves itself through the documentary, we may be lulled into ignoring the conventions of what we're expected to respond to, the emotional cogs and pulleys that tug our attention.
In Goold's production, devastating human experience emerges through grotesque vaudeville and tragic opera, anything other than so-called 'ultra-naturalism'. (It helps that the most prominent 'character' is played by Ian McDiarmid, a magnificent actor with no interest in appealing to audience sympathy.) When two professional actors attempt to recreate one of the characters' most traumatic moments, they hobble the lines with apparently realistic pauses and hesitant mumbles that are suddenly revealed another form of stylisation. One actor even adopts a Scottish accent, which in Britain is often taken as an index of staunch gravitas. 'This is naturalism, mate!' huffs the actor when criticised - and an unexpectedly partial form of representation it proves to be.
Humans are adaptable animals. We suit our stories - we suit ourselves - to fit expectations. If we shape an account of ourselves and our experience fit for Oprah's sofa or a pseudo-sensitive drama, does this begin to shape our emotions? Theatre doesn't always need to make us feel more deeply - instead, as with Six Characters, it can make us look more sharply. The triumph of Goold's production is to help us examine the frame of our behaviour and work towards new ways of seeing.
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