Theatre Review - The Chairs

IN the 1950s, Eugène Ionesco helped popularise a style of drama that became known as Theatre of the Absurd. His characters are often caught in hopeless situations and the plots are deliberately repetitive or cyclical in nature. In his 1952 play, 
The Chairs, the forerunner to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, an old couple are trapped in a senseless world.

Husband and wife team Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni play the old man and woman marooned on an island, awaiting their guests.

The old man has written a special speech with an important message for mankind that he has invited a professional speaker to read.

The play’s more sombre moments are laced with slapstick humour. Omar Elerian, who translates as well as directs, attempts to give Ionesco a modern makeover and adds a metatheatrical framing device.

Before curtain up, we “overhear” the two actors speaking through the Tannoy in the dressing room. Magni has a bad case of nerves and doesn’t think he can go on. The stage manager (Toby Sedgwick, who also plays the speaker) has to propel him onto the stage.

Hunter is dressed in an old-fashioned black dress, red tights and orange wig, while Magni is in a rumpled frock coat. The nonagenarian couple re-enact the same conversation they’ve been having for years, before they are interrupted by the doorbell. As the invisible guests arrive the chairs begin to fill up the stage.

There is some wonderful clowning. At one point the pair share a cup of tea – one is real, the other mimed – and then they swap. Another time, they are carrying an invisible table and exit in different directions.

Hunter’s old woman flirts with her invisible guests and delights in flaunting her petticoats. Her simulated sexual encounter with one of them is delightfully audacious.

There’s much to admire, but Elerian’s production (running at two hours without an interval) feels over long. Fortunately, Kathryn Hunter is supremely watchable. Her physicality is striking, her comic timing spot-on, and her voice hypnotic.

Until March 5

Originally published by Islington Tribune