I counted about 22 chairs before I was distracted by The Chairs‘ dazzling farce. Sharp, refreshingly modernised and astonishingly self-aware, the Almeida’s staging of Eugene Ionesco’s tragicomedy is superbly silly slapstick.
If you’re somewhat unfamiliar with Ionesco’s work, then prolonged climaxes are kind of his thing. In his play Exit the King – which had a National Theatre staging in 2018 – Rhys Ifans played a monarch who simply refused to die, his inevitable passing prolonged until the very end.
In this instance, an Old Man (Complicité’s Marcello Magni), with the help of his wife, an Old Woman (Kathryn Hunter, who most will recognise as Harry Potter’s neighbour in The Order of the Phoenix) are gathering as many people as possible to witness the sharing of a special ‘message’ – just as soon as the speaker who’s sharing it on OM’s behalf turns up…
Not afraid to challenge and ridicule Ionesco as much as the circumstances the characters find themselves in, translator and director Omar Elerian brings modern politics to the (imaginary) table, with remainers, ‘remoaners’ and leavers supposedly invited to Old Man’s big talk. Meanwhile we’re told by the Speaker later in the play that an idea of dressing him up as the Commons Speaker felt too “on the nose” – quite. While I won’t spoil the drawn out conclusion to the play, it is certainly different to the original – one which, what with all the contemporary references, appears to serve up a rather pointed criticism of politicians and their empty words. All that build-up to a press conference, for nothing.
And I mean, politics sure is farcical right now…
Then again, the best farce disarms the typical apprehension an average theatregoer has when confronted with the unknown, leaving them with a sense of bewilderment which is unexpected rather than disorientating. And to that end, it’s to Elerian’s credit that we are guided, rather poetically, to the play’s long-awaited conclusion. Magni and Hunter mirror each other perfectly in their singing and dancing, as well as their management of the imaginary guests as they enter the room. It’s one thing for a single actor to project a personality onto invisible characters; it’s another for a second performer to mimic that with astonishing precision.
A similar, hilarious example comes in the form of the Speaker, Toby Sedgwick, clinking an actual cup of tea while we watch Old Woman mime the same action. The management of invisible objects such as tables and gifts make for calamitous continuity errors, splitting an imaginary table in half and at one point, leading to a rather frustrated case of charades from Old Man. Magni’s character flounders and despairs in his gesticulations as he searches for stability and release, an intriguing contrast compared to Hunter’s petite Old Woman – doll-like with her bright orange curly hair, old-fashioned dress and rigid movements. Her grounded nature means she’s spending a lot of the 145-minute production trying to console her troubled husband, which in a farce, goes about as well as you’d expect.
The only real disappointment in a show where one has to expect deliberate, comedic underwhelm is in the chairs themselves. A quick Google search of the original play tells me other productions of Ionesco’s comedy decorated the props in a more metaphorical fashion, yet here they are simply different colours which – save for the emperor in the form of the bewildered Speaker, who has a golden seat – bear no resemblance to their characters. A captain takes a seat in a black chair which would have been better if it were at least khaki or a similar colour depending on his rank or deployment. A love interest of the Old Man could have taken a seat in a red chair, for example.
However, while the seats on stage – whatever colour they may be – are empty, I think it unlikely that those remaining in the audience will stay the same for much longer.
The Chairs is now playing at the Almeida Theatre until 5 March. Relaxed, captioned and audio described performances take place on 23, 24 and 26 February respectively.
Production Images: Helen Murray.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Chairs’ for free in exchange for a review of the press performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.