Intelligent and effective production of Ionesco’s classic play
By Leeor Adar
Eugène Ionesco was a notable writer in the French avant-garde and absurdist theatre, and a theatre-maker that found art in considering the futility of man. Like many of his contemporaries, Ionesco was the product of a world of wars and ideas. The Chairs is one of Ionesco’s earliest major works, and perhaps the play that depicts humanity’s futility and absurdity at its finest.
The premise follows an old man and woman, currently isolated from the rest of society, preparing to entertain a hoard of guests for the old man’s message to the world. The sea surrounds the bored pair as they plod through their lives, reliving the excitement of stories already told and vistas already explored. The old woman serves as the vessel from which the man relays his moments of glory (or the moments of glory he could have had), while the old man unsteadily looks upon the world from his ladder, eyeing the boats that pass them in the distance – a promise of life elsewhere. The claustrophobia in Ionesco’s language is palpable – the pauses that linger and the poignant sense that these two characters live within one another and no where else.
Award-winning writer and artistic director Jenny Kemp directs this La Mama production, bringing to secluded life the void of the old man (Robert Meldrum) and the old woman (Jillian Murray). The performance space of the La Mama theatre enhances the stifling intimacy of the writing and characters, and the adroit lighting design (Rachel Burke) and sound design (Russell Goldsmith) heighten this intense experience further.
The quality of the acting is excellent here: Meldrum and Murray inject so much energy into this production, and we utterly believe their characters’ profound desperation and manic highs and lows. The language of Ionesco is handled with real care and attention to detail; Kemp’s vision is clear and we as an audience feel crowded in by the invisible audience the play brings onto stage, culminating in the greatest chair pile-up I expect La Mama has ever seen.
This production is quite exhausting for the audience, but this was necessary given the content of the play. What starts as hopeful energy becomes devoured by the exasperation of the characters trying to bring their message to life and be seen and valued in their world. The arrival of the Emperor – another invisible force – brings the turning point upon which lives of the old couple have reached completion. There are comic moments in this journey, and there are universal truths about our existence worth contemplating during the course of the play.
Kemp’s The Chairs is impressively successful in mastering what it wants on stage, but whether every audience can patiently journey with the characters of Ionesco’s play is another proverbial ladder to climb altogether.
The Chairs played at La Mama Theatre from 5-15 October, 2017. Visit http://lamama.com.au/ for information about upcoming productions.
Image by Jeff Busby