Less well known than ‘The Bald Primadonna’ and ‘The Lesson’, this play is perhaps the most daring and original of Ionesco’s early and highly original ventures into what we now know as ‘theatre of the absurd.’ First produced in in French in 1952, it depicts a very elderly couple apparently stranded on an island and engaged on a quest for meaning. The husband, despite a life of obscurity as a janitor – ‘the master of the mop’ – has decided to invite a host of guests to their island home to witness an address from an orator who will articulate the old man’s final message about the meaning of life. The old woman aids and abets these grandiose ambitions, though indicating along the way a good measure of scepticism. It is never clear whether this is all just a fantasy game they play or an actual sequence of events.
The bulk of the action is devoted to the arrival of the guests, none of whom in fact are present. Instead chair after chair is laid out on the revolve stage and the writer presents a most amusing parody of social small talk as the two hosts interact with people well known and unknown to them who behave both well, badly and boringly. While the situations and the physical humour may still be absurd in this section of the play there is also a lot of keen social satire of bourgeois convention.
Director and translator Omar Elerian has intervened substantially in the drama to varying degrees of success. He has opened out the action to include the audience in a lot of behind-the-scenes theatrical pratfalls – the play begins with apparent backstage nerves revealed through the tannoy. Props and prompts are delivered by a stagehand, and parts of the set collapse at significant points in the action, triggering the arrival of Toby Sedgwick, the third cast member, as both an elaborately venerated ruler-figure and then the anti-climactic speaker. This all works well in providing visual effects and appropriate moments of disjunctive punctuation to the action. Less successful is the ending which for no clear reason substitutes the ironically deaf-mute speaker, unable to deliver the meaningful message, for a rambling monologue which never really justifies itself despite the skill with which Sedgwick points and delivers it.
The glory of the show is the real-life couple at the centre of it, Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter, masters of physical theatre and exquisite comic timing. Both dressed in black Victorian garb, and with Hunter in a doll-like ginger wig, they move like marionettes around the stage, with a graceful artifice that stays just the right side of exaggeration and caricature. They treat the moves and the text with deadly seriousness, which of course opens up the scope for humour all the more. The director builds the action to a frenzy of chair-moving and social engagement as the revolve turns before collapsing all the anticipation and tension into bathos, as the author always intended. But this is only to allow scope for the darker shadows to lengthen as the very search for meaning in life is shown to be absurd and pointless.
This production is technically excellent, already honed and tight right at the start of its run. The decision to emphasise and reveal the artifice involved in theatre means that sound, lighting and set need to operate (or go stylishly wrong) with absolute precision even when it is mayhem and anarchy that is being enacted. That happens, and with such peerless acting to propel the action this all guarantees an evening of high-quality drama, with brio and energy to the fore but the hopelessness of existential despair never far away.