The Theatre of the Abstruse

The Chairs, which was first performed in 1952, is a mystery to players and audience alike.  In fact Eugene Ionesco himself claimed that “drama that relies on simple effects is not necessarily drama simplified”. In this play, The Old Man and The Old Woman are waiting for the arrival of their invited audience to a lecture that is to be delivered by The Orator.  They are on an island surrounded by water in a (possibly) post-Apocalyptic state.  Memory and failure seem to have been the web that has held them together in a permanent recapitulation of missed opportunities and the journey they have made to this moment.

The guests start arriving, first a young woman, then The Colonel, then a couple… each time the bell rings and the guest is greeted and more chairs are placed to accommodate them.  This assembly is imaginary, or it is possibly not imaginary to The Old Man and Woman, since they greet each guest enthusiastically, flirtatiously, grotesquely, and the stage becomes more and more crowded with chairs.  Finally, after the arrival of The Emperor himself, the bell rings and it is The Orator.  The moment for the Great Message has arrived – and at last another embodied character arrives.  In the Ionesco play, The Old Man and The Old Woman commit suicide and The Orator turns to the “audience” at which point we, the audience, discover that he is a Deaf-Mute.

In the version produced by Vasile Nedelcu at The Camden Fringe Etcetera venue this week, this ending had been modified somewhat. Considering how challenging this play is in the first place, it is a remarkable feat to have brought it off wholly or partially successfully in a space which is itself challenging.

Whether by accident or design, the players managed to accommodate the extremely annoying Air Conditioning unit into their performance, using its sound effects to replicate the arrival of more and more guests – to give you the idea – one first heard a sound like a coffee percolator followed by running water, to transform this into motor boats arriving with guests was a stroke of genius.

However, another trick that might have been used in such an intimate space with a well-attended but not quite full auditorium, was to place some of the ‘guests’ in among the spaces, this would have had the added effect of drawing the audience into the play.

The Old Man played by David Brett looks suitably careworn, querulously defensive and inhabits the part admirably; Alison Sandford has the more difficult task of wife/mother while at a later stage bringing off a grotesque sexual encounter with one of the ‘guests’.  In this she is hampered by an extraordinary costume and a curious decision to play “Happy Family” cards or patience on a stool! Between them they managed a performance that was like the parson’s egg: good in parts.

The Orator who has a small but crucial role, is played by Corin Stuart.  Rather than present him as a Deaf-Mute, which perhaps in more sensitive times is considered politically inappropriate, he comes on greets the imaginary guests and then puts on a PowerPoint presentation.

Vasile Nedelcu and Eugene Ionesco are both Romanian and therefore may be presumed to understand each other better than me, and I was sternly chided when I described this play as the Theatre of the Absurd, however and whatever you wish to call it, the premise is tragically, farcically comic and therefore it needs a sure touch to bring it off or the audience will not ‘get it’.

The other play in the same billing is The Lesson.  In some ways, this is even more challenging than The Chairs.  We have a Teacher played by Corin Stuart, a pupil played by Deborah Ellis and a Maid played by Alison Sandford.  Marie, the maid, warns the teacher not to overdo things with his next pupil, the pupil arrives and the lesson begins.  It starts well enough with a little arithmetic, this seems to unravel somewhat when the pupil cannot grasp the concept of subtraction – there is some cunning ‘business’ with matches
(imaginary of course, this is Ionesco after all) and with a blackboard – the deft mime and clever labial sound effects giving the audience an exact picture of what is going on.  But then to everyone’s astonishment the pupil, having utterly failed to grasp subtraction, correctly answers a very complex piece of multiplication. But this we discover is a feat of memory not comprehension.  Marie comes on from time to time, further aggravating the teacher.  Things take a turn for the worse when the teacher starts on language, it is too difficult, unless you know the play, to explain the processes that this goes through suffice it to say that the audience are left wondering whether the teacher is a complete charlatan or a complete idiot.

By the end of the lesson, the teacher is losing his temper and the pupil has toothache and a lot more besides.  The teacher produces a knife and in a series of complex moves and mimes forcibly persuades the pupil to say ‘kni-fe’ repeatedly and then stabs her.

Marie appears for the last time and with world-wearying patience removes the pupil, the 40th that morning.  The doorbell rings and a new pupil is admitted…

There are obviously several ways to play this, and I do remember now seeing this in Paris in the 1960s played absolutely straight with the teacher showing only mild irritation with the pupil, and only gently bringing her back to focus on the point he is making when she complains of toothache which made the ending hugely shocking.  In this production, also directed by Vasile Nedelcu, the signs of instability appear quite early on and, together with the costumes and make-up especially of the pupil, indicate that we are in the realms of surreal comedy.  Both the main actors bring off this complex drama with admirable dexterity.

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