Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs is regarded as a classic of its kind and was one of the pieces of European drama that ushered in a new wave of absurdist playwriting in the early 1950s; it is roughly contemporaneous with Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and indeed shares some similarities with it. This version was filmed on a 2016 tour by Extant Theatre who pioneer inclusive practices for visually impaired performers and audiences.
Like Godot, the play begins with two people waiting for something to happen and looking forward to encountering a mysterious visitor (here known as the Orator) who they hope will help them make sense of their existence and guide them on their path of life. The two characters are an elderly married couple Semiramis and Poppet who often exhibit rather childlike tendencies as they reminisce, make a fuss about nothing in particular and squabble with each other. Poppet reveals that he is a janitor and in the first section he is perpetually mopping the floor and fiddling with a rather dilapidated pair of electronic control panels though he cannot get them to work. Meanwhile Semiramis flits around with a duster; she makes little impression on the rather grimy room they inhabit. They are getting ready to entertain a number of guests whom the Orator will be addressing; this is where the chairs come in. As the guests start to trickle in, more and more chairs have to be found in order to seat them and there is a long sequence where Semiramis brings chair after chair on to the stage as well as some appearing themselves through various doorways and large flaps. The chairs are totally random in appearance and as the scene progresses, they become more and more dilapidated and ramshackle; the chaos of this sequence is echoed in a pulsating soundtrack which becomes deliberately annoying.
The two characters are played with gusto by Heather Gilmore and Tim Gebbels, both of whom are visually impaired. They do a remarkable job and are clearly schooled in the European clowning tradition which brings another dimension to their performances. Gilmore in particular, with her shock of backcombed hair and her patchwork costume, brings a hugely rewarding visual dimension to her routines and how she managed to position all the chairs is a wonder in itself. Gebbels is rather more deadpan and petty tyrannical – his mop serves both as a prop and a movement aid. The cross talk between the two, especially at the start, is delightfully presented and put me in mind of another Beckett play, Endgame.
The set is also reminiscent of Beckett’s play as we would appear to be post-apocalyptic disaster in something resembling a steampunk submarine. As designed by Andrea Carr this entropic bolt hole is characterised by rust, decay and grime; you can fairly see the corrosive acid dripping down the walls. The stage floor is particularly ingenious consisting, as it does, of various textures (such as manhole covers) enabling Gilmore and Gebbels to find their way around and orient their positions on set by touch and sound. The latter is also important for any sight impaired members of the audience and ingenious use is made of audio description to enhance the experience. Brilliantly, this is not at all intrusive to sighted audience members as the description takes the form of the two characters interior monologue and so merely becomes an added dimension to what can be seen. While this wouldn’t necessarily work in a more mainstream play it is an intelligent solution to a perennial problem when diminished vision is a barrier.
Truth be told, I found the latter stages of the play a little trying. The initial cross talk and the introduction of the first guests – by the way I should have mentioned that Ionesco’s visitors are invisible though the performers behave as if they can be seen, a very nice touch in this particular production – all works7 very well but then repetition takes over. While I completely understand that this is one of the main tropes of an absurdist piece, I just found myself getting impatient. The ending is pretty bleak (of course) as the two central characters come to realise the pointlessness of their existence and take measures to change things irrevocably.
Maria Oshodi’s sympathetic and focused direction does the piece justice and ensures that interest can mostly be sustained; as with so many of these video captures it was all probably a lot more compelling in a live situation. Two remarkably prescient aspects helped to bring this production slap bang up to date. Firstly, we are presented with a couple in a serious lockdown situation and we can totally empathise with their sense of ennui and hopelessness. Secondly when the Orator does finally appear (unlike Godot) s/he is dressed in full hazmat gear. It’s all very 2020!
Production photos by Lily Owen
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