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Brighton Fringe 2024

Low Down

What must it be like – inside the skull of another person?


Especially that of an artist or a writer – someone who creates alternative realities … out of the deep recesses of their own mind?


In last year’s Fringe, we saw writer Tim Coakley’s play about the mind of Salvador Dali, and the crowds of characters in that artist’s Unconscious.   This year it’s his take on Luigi Pirandello.  


I wonder what it’s like inside Coakley’s skull? …


It’s pretty messy in Pirandello’s, judging by the stage at The Lantern as we took our seats – cups and papers scattered everywhere, a chair overturned … a general impression of chaos.


Then the writer himself appeared, rather unkempt, and took a seat as he mused to himself about how to create a sequel to his play ‘Six Characters In Search Of An Author’.   He’d written this in 1923, when he was already fifty-six years old, and he’s obviously some years older than that when we see him now.


In Pirandello’s play – six individuals walk on to a stage where a company of actors are taking part in a rehearsal. They claim to be unused creations of an author’s imagination; but as characters, they have lives of their own, and they demand to be given lines for a narrative that will explain their existence.


‘Six Characters’ is one of the earliest examples of what became known as meta-fiction, where the construction of a story or play becomes apparent to the audience, and we can see the nuts and bolts behind the action that’s taking place on the surface.   It’s also known as ‘breaking the fourth wall’, where we the audience are not simply observing events, like through a window, but able to see how the illusion is created.  


When the technique is used in a novel, the result can be surreal.  Pirandello’s work almost certainly influenced this reviewer’s favourite example – Flann O’Brien’s 1939 book ‘At Swim-Two-Birds’, where a group of characters from Irish mythology attempt to wrest control of the book from the author who’s created them.


It’s been a while since Pirandello wrote his masterpiece, and he wants to create a sequel.  But he’s got writer’s block, and nothing’s coming.   There are a couple of what appear to be white-shrouded mannequins at the back of his room, though, and suddenly one of them slips off its covering and reveals itself to be … a man !


“Are you Pirandello the writer?   I’m your biggest fan!  I’ve been searching for you …”  

See what Tim Coakley did there?   The first joke of a very funny show – the writer’s put in  constant references to the structure and philosophy of ‘Six Characters In Search Of An Author’.


This character claims to want to help the author overcome his problem.  It’s Andrew Allen, who also played Salvador Dali in Coakley’s play I mentioned earlier.  He’s loud and effusive, constantly upbeat and positive – a complete contrast to Julian Howard McDowell’s depressive Pirandello.


For Pirandello can see that all of existence is about the masks that people wear, to give structure to their lives and enable them to make sense of other people’s.   “Pretence is how Society works”, he tells Andrew Allen’s character.  “If you didn’t pretend – you couldn’t be a King, or a Queen, or The Pope.”


( A nice little note here from Coakley, reminding us that in another of Pirandello’s plays the protagonist imagines himself to be King Henri IV of France. )


Allen’s determined to help the writer, and gets him to roleplay a range of situations.  First off there’s a cocktail party, where both men put on smarter clothes – another mask!  Later they examine several other situations which point up aspects of Pirandello’s life and relationships. This just confirms Pirandello’s belief that in life – ”There are more masks than faces … it’s fake people instead of genuine ones”    There were a number of white masks lying around the set, and the actors donned these for some of their lines.


It’s evident that Pirandello is suffering from serious existential angst – he tells Allen that he feels he’s living in a dark abyss, inhabited by vast numbers of snails.  The snails’ shells provide them with an identity – an outward signifier of the roles, occupations and relationships that get them through a life that’s actually meaningless.    (You can see why he’s considered to be an important influence on Samuel Beckett)


And he seems to have almost as much belief in the characters he creates, as in his own physical being.   After all, once a character has been written, it has a life of its own, regardless of whether the writer is alive or dead.    Allen’s character is fixated on the idea that they are creating a play together, and wants to know what is the plot.  Pirandello dismisses that idea out of hand.  “I think you’re still living in the 19th Century”  –  “Characters are all that’s important, any story is secondary.”


This is where Tim Coakley’s play twists back on itself like a Moebius Strip.   In theory the two men are creating a ‘Sequel to Six Characters In Search Of An Author’ – but it looks like they haven’t met enough Characters.  “You must be one of them” says Pirandello to Allen’s character, and of course this must be true – he’s presumably a product of the author’s unconscious, helping with the man’s writer’s block.


But then Allen’s persona drops the existential bombshell.  


“YOU are the sixth character”, he tells the author.  “Pirandello is dead, remember – been dead for years.  We are simply characters in a play ABOUT Pirandello …”   


Wow!   For a moment it felt as if the theatre space lurched and twisted on its axis.  Patina Hapgood’s confident direction had allowed us to feel that we were in the presence of real individuals, and to have that illusion shattered so brutally was a profound shock.   Unforgettable!


But then … If Pirandello is right, and characters, once created, have lives of their own: then maybe we had been watching real entities – just not the ones we thought we’d seen.  How many layers down do you want to go?


Tim Coakley has written a play that gives us a real taste of the genius of Pirandello – we certainly didn’t feel like part of the 19th Century !    Catch it if you can – but don’t blame me if its convolutions keep you awake all night.