Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter in The Chairs
In a playful and intimate new version from translator-director Omar Elerian, The Chairs at the Almeida Theatre is a fantastically disruptive, rambunctious and chaotic meta-drama. It is unlike much else on contemporary British stages (certainly in the larger venues), driven by an offbeat comic intensity, powerhouse performances and searing insight into both Ionesco’s text and the 21st century world his drama is now performed in.
In updating Eugène Ionesco’s classic script, Elerian substitutes the blasted heath no-place, fairly typical of the Theatre of the Absurd, for a dilapidated theatre – which literally falls apart as the show goes on. Presiding over this space are the Old Man and Old Woman, nonagenarians who proceed to welcome invisible guests to watch an upcoming speech, setting out an ever-increasing array of chairs from which the apparent message of salvation they have been promised may be witnessed.
The performances here are utterly virtuosic, with real-life married couple Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni playing the affectionate, tatty hosts with true precision. The mutual warmth is palpable, despite their constant low-level rowing, and the Old Woman calls her husband ‘Crumpet’ with a loving twinkle. Kathryn Hunter’s performance particularly transcends age; the Old Woman’s seniority manifests not through slowness, but in a spritely, child-like impishness, hunched and small though moving with striking agility, while her voice is gruff but squeaks with youth. Elerian makes excellent use of their masterful physicality, and the characters are tremendous assets in the play’s slowly building first hour. Where a director might usually be forced to tighten up and trim down, here the sheer joy exuded by Hunter and Magni allows Elerian to extend the play with delightful stage business – including some hilarious prop work involving an invisible table, and the repetitive, though idiosyncratically evocative language. They constantly mutter phrases like ‘titters and tatters’, enjoying the words for their alliterative quality while alluding to the ruined apocalyptic world outside, which they avoid acknowledging. The play’s pace increases as the show goes on, swirling into a frenzy when the stage revolves – filling with the titular chairs in a breath-taking display of technical, artful choreography.
Yet the comedy of Hunter and Magni is not an elaborate way to delay the play’s conclusion. Instead seems fundamental to the production’s dramaturgy. I found myself acutely aware of my laughter in a way that I had rarely, if ever, felt before. Here, metatheatre is a powerful engine of both comedy and ethics – far more than the nod and a wink fourth wall breaking that audiences are generally more familiar with. After all, the central image of The Chairs is of a stage filled with empty seats – an audience who are not present, perhaps unrepresented on stage or simply the couple’s shared delusion. The audience are always part of the theatrical event (the prerequisite, as in Peter Brook’s famous definition in The Empty Space), yet we have a particularly unstable relationship to The Chairs. The play parallels us as spectators to a message. Yet, as two unwitting front-row dwellers discover, when enlisted in a sudden bout of audience participation, we are as real to the characters as the unreal, onstage audience. The fourth wall is porous and leaky, and it is as if we too are the delusions of the characters.
Very often, the serious British theatre experience for audiences is defined by a pretence of not existing – trying to dissociate from potential bodily discomfort, bound by unwritten codes of etiquette that dictate that the merest rustle of a sweet packet is a transgression against the theatrical illusion. Such dissociation is all but impossible here. From the start, in an extremely funny, several-minute section added to the play’s beginning, we are made aware of our presence. Sat under the house lights, the audience overhears the actors through an intercom they purportedly do not realise is broadcasting. We are denied the customary plunge of the space into darkness – at which point we often would, for all intents and purposes, cease to exist. Instead, we sit – waiting for the show to begin (but of course it already has) – oddly aware of ourselves as the actors peek through the curtains and note that we’re all sitting there waiting.
The play seems in some ways timeless, or of the very end of time, but is shot through with a knowing contemporary edge. The actor playing the Old Man ensconces himself backstage, insisting that he does not wish to perform, saying ‘tell them I’ve got Covid’ – grimly apt given the premature end to the Almeida’s Spring Awakening in January due to positive cases in the company. Later, the Old Woman’s age is wryly quantified in the twenty-one booster vaccines she has been eligible for – a good joke, but one which places the events of the play within touching distance of now, in the most frightening form of apocalyptic dystopia: the near future, within our own expected lifetimes.
Elerian and the company retool Ionesco’s drama for the present day far more significantly than just in these (well-judged) asides though – most strikingly in the complete overhaul of the play’s distinctive, bathetic ending. The Chairs’ (more frequently performed in Britain) counterpart in absurdist drama is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, whose infamous ending in which Godot does not show up is known by the vast majority of audience members in advance. Tragic, however, is not merely his absence, but the absurd, doomed hope that Vladimir and Estragon entertain that Godot could be a source of transformation. That Waiting for Godot’s (lack of) plot is widely known is hardly a problem for the play though. It is not a twist ending, but a dawning realisation – obvious to anyone who has read the programme notes. Yet, if you peruse a programme for a performance of The Chairs, you will ordinarily see a short cast list of three: the Old Man, the Old Woman, and the Orator – who does appear.
Beckett’s play was first staged a year after Ionesco’s, and it could be argued that Beckett is extending, and making more absurd, the misidentification of hope as found in The Chairs. Unlike Godot, the Orator turns up. But just like him, the Orator fails to provide salvation, deliverance, or even coherent words. It is arguably bleaker to see hope which actively fails, rather than a hope postponed indefinitely. Yet though Waiting for Godot is a ‘tragicomedy in two acts’ – suffused with a base humour of impotence – Ionesco denotes his play a ‘tragic farce’. The Chairs is a tragedy because the chairs are really empty and the Orator fails to speak, but it is also a farce because it is witnessed by a real audience, an interplay of genre of which Elerian seems keenly aware. Interviewed by Natasha Tripney in The Stage, he quotes Charlie Chaplin, saying: ‘Life is tragedy up close and comedy in long shot.’ A theatre audience is in the perhaps unique position of having close proximity and abstracted distance all at once.
Ionesco’s original play expressed not only a general existentialist futility, but the fear that grips writers and potentially audiences too: that theatre (and art) which claims to have a message of salvation is actually voiceless and futile. Partly it dramatises a fear of writer’s block, which mirrors a wider political anxiety that we cannot dream up a better future. Yet it also challenges the grand, implicit promise of many works of art, that they can elevate and transcend material circumstances, wielding the power to change minds with empathy and ideas. The Chairs is a core part of a theatrical tradition that wonders if we have got a bit carried away.
Yet, rather brilliantly, Elerian’s version wonders if the infamous silences, absences and privations of existentialist tragedy have become too much of a spectacle in of themselves. The Orator’s inability to form words constitutes a powerful message in itself – an articulately ineloquent expression of artistic and political failures of imagination. Elerian instead subverts everything which makes the original entrance of the Orator grand and symbolic. Toby Sedgwick plays him amid collapsing scenery and without the relevant costume, with a powerful disaffection – half in character, half the reluctant stagehand who has been roped in to play a character with two other actors who wilfully deviate from the script. Hunter and Magni have a brainwave, when a curtain collapses on top of Sedgwick, using the fabric as the imperial robes of the (usually invisible) Emperor – gleefully trampling over the original dramaturgy while Sedgwick visibly seethes. When the time comes for the Orator to attempt to speak, Sedgwick apologetically addresses us, taking a galumphing, conversational tack in striking contrast to Hunter and Magni’s precision. He punctures the magic of theatre with a shrug – telling us that he was not able to change his costume and pulling away fake, stuck-on mutton chops and whiskers from his face with a baffled expression. None of it is real. This is theatre in collapse.
The most substantial deviation Elerian makes from Ionesco is the replacement of the deaf-mute Orator’s ‘Jou, gou, hou, hou’ noises with a fourth-wall breaking address – yet one riddled with the same powerful bathos. Instead of literal nonsense, we hear relatively empty words. His profound truth is still inaccessible, but now lost in what Elerian describes as the ‘so many conflicting truths’ we are subject to in our daily lives.
The Orator references Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, with pronounced indifference – neatly encapsulating the intellectual apathy which Debord diagnosed as a consequence of capitalism on culture. Yet Debord is a potent addition to the production, introducing his notably theatrical terminology of spectacle – and, implicitly criticised, the passivity, transfixion and vulnerability of spectatorship. Many theorists and theatre makers have sought to mitigate the assumed inactivity and nonparticipation of theatre audiences in drama – which Peter Brook diagnosed as the ‘slump’ caused by theatrical ‘deadliness’. The dramaturgies of Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal are designed to deliberately include, exclude and probe their audiences. The latter proposed the term ‘spect-actors’, insisting that to watch drama is not passive, but active, a proposition later argued by Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator (2009). ‘Emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting’, he writes, arguing that the spectator ‘observes, selects, compares, [and] interprets’ – all active engagements with the drama. As in Debord, one of the great dangers of the spectacle though is the general sense of helplessness it can engender – as if the drama would be happening anyway, regardless of the presence of the audience.
While some critics – such as Matt Wolf in the New York Times – lamented the production’s ‘fussy’-ness and questioned the need of the final scene’s elongation, for me, Sedgwick’s closing monologue seems essential. The tragedy of this The Chairs contrasts the original, a riposte to the dramatically bathetic anti-climax of the original, absurdist theatre finding an oxymoronic grandeur in the renunciation of hope or resolution. This puts the whimper back into the way the world ends. It is not as simple as a failure of vision from political leaders or artists, but an unwillingness on the part of the audience to sift the wisdom from the noise – leaving meaning in ‘titters and tatters.’
The ChairsWritten by Eugène Ionesco, Directed and Translated by Omar Elerian, Design by Cécile Trémolières and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen, Lighting Design by Jackie Shemesh, Sound Design by Elena Peña and Pete Malkin, Wigs, Hair and Makeup Co-Designed by Suzanne Scotcher, Voice Coaching by Michaela Kennen, Assistant Direction by Nastazja Domaradzka, Magic Consultant Patrick Ashe, Starring Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni, Toby Sedgwick
Production Photographs by Helen Murray
Reviewed 11th February 2022