9 February 2022
THE CHAIRS (Almeida Theatre) Review
This is my second Ionesco play, but I’ve seen enough plays from the Theatre of the Absurd genre to know things were going to get messy and confusing. The parallels with Beckett’s “Endgame”, which is more widely know (and which, interestingly, was written shortly after “The Chairs”, both in the 1950s) are striking: two people who are possibly isolated, possibly the last humans on the planet, or possibly senile are going about their business like they do. Crumpet, the old man, is the commander of the mop who has discovered the answer to everything (spoiler alert: it’s not 42!) and wants to share it with the world, but is not confident in his oratory abilities. His wife Semiramide, the old woman, adores him and encourages him to find a way to get his message to the world. Her line, “I’m your wife, [so] I am your mommy now” got a few hearty laughs. As everybody who is anybody arrives, the plot thickens.
Although the play is [mostly] what it is, there are bits of it that have been rewritten and updated by Omar Elerian, who both translated and directed. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that. In fact, I was so undecided that I hung out after the show to speak to Elerian and find out what prompted the changes. His reasons were compelling (but if I tell you what they were, it’ll run the surprise), and his message is both important and interesting (focused on whether there is much difference between having no information vs. having too much of it), I like my classics to be upated only in certain ways. There is something to be said for making a play more relevant by linking it to the issues of today, but if I want to see a play with references to Covid and Mark Zuckerberg’s looks, I will go see a contemporary piece of political writing. I understand the importance of the point Elerian is trying to make, but the audience aren’t allowed to discover it for themselves on account of it being chewed up into bite-size pieces for easy digestion. That sort of thing always puts me off, but, predictably, it got lots of laughs, so I appreciate I might be in a minority here. It would be interesting to see the play again toward the end of the run to see how it evolves.
Kathryn Hunter is incredible. Her Semiramide is so fragile, she is almost translucent and has a good deal of mischief in here eyes. At one point she is downstage and looking to put her cup somewhere. I was desperately wishing for someone from the front row to stand up and offer to take it from her because I think she would’ve been a good sport about it. That would’ve added buckets of charm, so rather sad it didn’t happen. There was one brief bit where her character is unnecessarily graphic, and it felt completely out of place. The dialog was clever enough on its own, and the accompanying actions (whether Ionesco’s or Elerian’s direction, I don’t know) felt like they didn’t go with the character. Although the main character, to the extent there is one, is the old man, it’s Hunter’s performance that drives the show. She is a joy to watch, and her nuanced performance helps drag the audience across patches here and there that are a bit confusing or don’t quite work.
Marcello Magni’s Crumpet has that professorial air about him, and you’re never quite sure if he is a really clever guy who never quite lived up to his full potential or just a regular Joe Bloggs who can do no wrong in his wife’s eyes. The acting was good, but he is completely outshown by Hunter. Last, but not least, Toby Sedgwick injects a great deal of humour into his role I won’t tell you about. He is funny, but oversells it in a couple of places by overacting.
The set was fantastic (and had about a hundred chairs to it!), and I really want to know the name of the classical music piece that plays as guests come flooding in. On balance, it was thoroughly enjoyable.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £8.
Gripe: The woman sat in the middle of my row was unbelievably annoying. She had a hyena laugh and laughed at absolutely everything, warranted or not. It made me think back to when a woman at my performance of “Seared” was such a nuisance, I complained to the manager in the interval, only to be told that invidivual reactions add just the right vibe to the performance. I said it then, and I’ll say it now: no they don’t. You are not home in front of the telly, so find a way to enjoy the show without being a complete £$%^.
Bonus 1: A woman and a man came in shortly before the show started and sat just in front of me. A couple of people turned around and looked, nudging each other, but I couldn’t tell who the woman was from the back of her head. After the show turned out it was Gemma Arterton.
Bonus 2: After the show, chatting to folks, learned that Boris Johnson came to see Macbeth when it was on. Given the current hooha in the news with his wife, the irony was ever so extra special…