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Arcola Theatre, London

The Chairs
3.0Reviewer's Rating

Those expecting a rather serious, modernist play from the ominous sounding title of The Chairs would be hit sideways by this play from Eugene Ionesco. As part of the Arcola Theatre’s Creative/Disruption Festival, Arcola 50+ presents The Chairs in a way that truly emphasises why it is categorised as Theatre of the Absurd.

Set in a Beckettian post-apocalyptic world, Ionesco’s mid-twentieth century play concerns the characters of an Old Man and Old Woman who after a supposed 75 years of marriage, live on an island surrounded by “stagnant water”. The play involves the couple manically arranging chairs for the huge number of invisible guests that come to listen to the Old Man’s great discovery that will be articulated by the mysterious Orator.

The stand out point of this production is that there are seven different versions of the same Old Man and seven of the Old Woman. Anyone familiar with Ionesco’s play will be shocked by this emergence of more than one Old Man and one Old Woman. Whether Donald Watson’s distinctive adaptation was for the practicality of the Arcola 50+ company or simply a different way of presenting the text, it creates a refreshing lens into the play’s dynamics.

The effect of the seven couples on stage creates a sense of hypervisibility. Ionesco’s theme of what is seen or not seen is central to The Chairs and this decision to have fourteen actors instead of two throws a lot up in the air, some of which lands gracefully and others more awkwardly. The babel of noise and movement perfectly creates a frantic rush on stage, an effect Ionesco demands in his strict and detailed stage directions. Yet, the play is about giving the “impression” of an overflowing room of invisible, mute people and so using visible, audible actors is perhaps cutting dramatical corners.

The ridiculous wigs and shuffling gait of the unnamed Old Man and his wife Semiramis immediately indicates the highly elevated absurdism and the exaggerated chaos to unfold. However, the loud energy of the multiple couples occasionally loses the weight of Ionesco’s rich writing as focus is drawn to different areas of the stage at once.

In the first half of the play the real audience is unnoticed by the characters on stage. However, the second half is filled with audience participation as “programmes” are handed out for the Old Man’s “important announcement” and the mysterious Orator signs autographs for audience members in the penultimate part of the play. This ambiguity is also illustrated as the invisible guests for the Old Man’s big philosophical reveal are sometimes considered and sometimes forgotten. For example, it is implied that the room is packed with seated guests, but the Old Men and Old Women also move, stand and sit on the chairs themselves, ignoring the fact that there should be people already sitting on them. Whether this non-standard staging is a purposeful contribution to the absurdist effect, or merely an oversight, is difficult to tell.

Despite these small issues with conformity, the energy produced by this intimate performance is brilliant and leaves the crowd laughing out loud at multiple points of the “tragic farce”. Diverting from Ionesco’s instruction occasionally brings elements of disappointment, yet it also unlocks a refreshing interpretation of the overshadowed avant-garde play. I applaud the cast that take this highly difficult play on and run with it; it is not at all what I expected, but that’s exactly what absurdist plays are about, right?

  • Drama
  • Composer: Donald Watson’s adaptation of Eugene Ionesco’s 1952 play
  • Director: Nick Connaughton
  • Cast: Lesley Amber, Clive Bennett, Clarissa Carvalho, Carmelle Denning, Judy Frumin, Helen Griffiths, Brian Innes, Phil Magee, Sophie Mathias, Kevin Mullins, Gaynor Smith, Ian Springer, Polly Symes, Christine Taylor, Roger Ward
  • Arcola Theatre, London

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