La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) has played more than 17,000 performances at the Theatre de la Huchette and has continued to charm audiences for more than 56 years – the longest uninterrupted showing of a play in the world. The reason can be clearly seen in the brilliant production which is on at the moment (and is on indefinitely) in the snug, atmospheric theatre in the Quartier Latin.
Ionesco’s play is a comedic satire on society which gives the audience a vignette of the life of the bourgeoisie of England through an evening which grows more and more bizarre and, eventually, approaches a farce. Beginning with Mr and Mrs Smith sitting in silence on the stage, Mr Smith hidden behind the Financial Times, an offstage narrator delivers a monologue describing the scene. The surreal atmosphere starts here with a long, slow and repetitious speech which describes every element of the scene in turn as ‘English’, whilst Mrs Smith continues her embroidery and Mr Smith continues to read. After the narrator finishes, the silence lasts for quite a while, punctuated by crescendo-ing sighs from Mrs Smith who at last begins many unsuccessful attempts at conversation with her husband. Finally, a dialogue starts and it centres around a ‘Bobby Watson’ (not featured in person in the play) whose whole family, the audience, begins to realise, shares the name ‘Bobby Watson’. This bizarre but very humorous tone continues for the rest of the play with Mr and Mrs Smith being joined by Mr and Mrs Donald as the evening becomes odder and odder.
This new couple proceed in a long routine, as they wait for the Smiths to come down to dinner, in which they act as supposed strangers who believe they have seen one another somewhere and are trying to work out where. This begins with the realisation that they took the same train yesterday and that they sat in the seats next to each other (with every revelation followed by the exclamation ‘what a coincidence’), escalates to the realisation that they shared a bed in the hotel last night (‘what a coincidence’) and ends with the ‘coincidence’ that they share a daughter. Joined by the Smiths, the conversation stagnates, with much comic effect, until they are joined by a policeman, a friend of the family, who is looking for fires to put out, and many bizarre stories are exchanged.
This very incomplete precis gives a flavour of the tone of the play, which is masterfully preserved by the cast and director. The rich humour is there throughout but this does not take the edge off the biting satire of society, all of which captures the intention of Ionesco as the interpretation of this production is very close to the text. The cast plays the two vital strains of the play perfectly and unite them seamlessly. This is aided by their maintenance of the surreal tone of the play as this brings significance to the comedy they so successfully create whilst foreshadowing the descent into conversations of non-sequiturs and the more bizarre dialogue with which the play finishes.
Despite its absurdity, the play is actually very accessible and provides a great deal of entertainment – much to the credit of the excellent actors and direction – and is a must-see for people visiting Paris.