This is a show that fizzes with ideas and enthusiasm. Written in 1950, The Bald Soprano is the first play of the French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco. The ‘theatre of the absurd’ is the label most often associated with the dramas of Ionesco and it is the absurd elements of this play on which director Emily Louisou has focussed in this inventive and fast-moving version of the work.
The scenario is simple. The six actors appear on stage dressed in black and with “white face” make-up. The action begins with frantic ‘square dance’ of movement in which the characters look as if they will crash into each other but never do and the startling choreography of what is essentially a dialogue-driven play is one of the cleverest features of this production. The actors show almost reckless commitment to the jumps and falls and struggles that accompany the words.
The plot is minimal. A couple, the Smiths, are waiting for their dinner guests, the Martins, to arrive. Their insubordinate maid intervenes and the Fire Chief, who may perhaps be her boyfriend, arrives. The dialogue rushes disjointedly along and veers between the mundane details of everyday life – which local grocer sells the best oil – and the sinister – where the next fire will break out. The Martins have a long conversation which begins with them appearing to be strangers and ends with them discovering that they live in the same house and sleep in the same bed. Sentences are sometimes repeated but with a change of wording that reverses their meaning. Stories that make no sense are told as if they are revelations of important truths.
The six actors are equal participants in the drama and there is not a weak link. Indeed, it is their total commitment to the collective nature of the way the play is structured that gives this production such force – the acting space at Etcetera Theatre is very small and the audience can see every facial expression of the actors listening to the actor who is speaking. The intensity of the group performance is spell-binding.
Not everything works. Sometimes the ideas run ahead of the actors’ technical abilities and, in such a small acting space, the volume needs better control. The sound system was not quite right at the performance that I saw. But this clever re-working of a play that could easily seem precious and absorbed with its own wordiness is a fine example of what a group of fearless young actors and a creative director can achieve.