January 27, 1998: Ionesco, The Chairs

Royal Court at Duke of York’s

A Sell-out crowd in this terribly cramped and inconvenient theatre, and it’s easy to see why. Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers as the Old Woman and Old Man in this classic (now) absurdist play by the first master of absurdist drama. McEwan and Brier are absolutely brilliant in their roles — one of those classic situations in which the playing of a decrepit couple on their last legs (literally) by two obviously old actors calls for mountainous energy and stamina, of which Briers and McEwan have a super-abundance. Ionesco had a peerless sense of the theatrical, including a keen eye for comic irony. There are multitudes of characters in this play, most of them imaginary and represented by chairs, which the old couple set out in rows in their island roundhouse, in anticipation of a deathless message from an orator that the Old Man has asked to come and speak for him. When at last the Orator appears, he is, though played by a live actor, the least real of possible personages — and he is a deaf mute, unable to communicate except by unintelligible grunts and writing incomprehensible words on the wall.

What is it all about? In predictable Ionesco fashion, it is about the “absurdity” of modern middle-class (i.e., bourgeois) life, its values, and its outcome. The Old Man and the Old Woman are almost like puppets (though wonderfully humanized), who keep up a marvelous, fast-paced badinage that simultaneously entertains us and makes us sad about these two characters’ demise. For this is the day they die: they leap out of opposite windows in this semicircular house of theirs, confident that the Orator will convey to the assembled multitude the “message” that the Old Man has entrusted to him. There is a certain pathos in this, and it is what elevates the play well beyond what it otherwise might be: a smart-ass takeoff on the absurd pretensions of middle-class respectability — pretensions to know the answers, to possess the right insights, to enjoy the right connections. At least, as I read the play — and read this performance too — that is Ionesco’s saving grace. He is no mere latter-day Dadaist; he has a real sense of human limitations — observable even in a piece as formulaic as The Bald Soprano; his sense of the human comedy never leaves him.

I thought the translation, by Martin Crimp, played very well. But the director, Simon McBurney, departed from the script in the costuming of the Orator and in the conduct of the very end of the play. The text calls for the Orator to be dressed in a kind of Bohemian artist’s garb reminiscent of the nineteenth century; here, the Orator had on a modern tuxedo, which effectively, all by itself, canceled out the symbolic idea of an orator whose “message” is a hundred years old and completely out of date. It has to be acknowledged, all the same, that Ionesco’s call for this “real” character to come off as grossly unreal certainly worked: the Orator was made up in a ghastly yellow pallor, with a fixed smile on his face.

Part of the farcical aspect of this “tragic farce” (as I think Ionesco styles it) is the basic business of setting numerous chairs. The stage directions call for them to be brought in through the numerous doors up in the walls of this half-round room. Briers and McEwan were wonderfully adept at this; it must have consumed hours and hours of rehearsal to get it right and keep it up to speed. The extended game was aided by the presence of a double for the Old Woman, a look-alike played adeptly by Sarah Baxter, billed as “Old Woman (Understudy)” in order not to give the game away. The result was that McEwan could exit at one side of the stage in search of another chair, and the double could immediately enter from the opposite side, chair in hand. This of course added to both the absurdity and the fun.

We enjoyed this performance greatly — it ran one and a half hours without, of course, an intermission; and the rest of the audience did too. It was an audience younger and more alert than we are used to seeing in the West End (at the Haymarket, for example, or the Aldwych, a few nights before). It seems to me this was the Royal Court audience, faithful and no less interested in what this theatre was doing, while its permanent venue in Sloane Square was undergoing a very extensive rehabilitation. Here, I thought, is part of the future of the London theatre.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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