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Eugene Gilfedder, Jennifer Flowers, The Chairs, La Boite Eugene Gilfedder, Jennifer Flowers, The Chairs, La Boite
photo Al Caeiro
OF LATE THERE HAS BEEN AN ALMOST OBSESSIVE REVIVAL OF INTEREST IN THE WORKS OF ROMANIAN-BORN, FRENCH PLAYWRIGHT EUGENE IONESCO, WHO WROTE IN THE SHADOW OF THE HOLOCAUST AND WHOSE WORK REFLECTED THE IDEOLOGICAL TENSIONS OF THE COLD WAR. IT’S TEMPTING TO ATTRIBUTE THIS TO AN AWARENESS OF THE TOTAL CORRUPTION OF OUR LANGUAGE INTO A MORASS OF MANAGERIAL, MARKETING AND CORPORATE SPIN ANALOGOUS TO THE STRONG LINKS IONESCO MAKES BETWEEN LANGUAGE AND THE EMPTINESS OF POWER.

Is our world with its dying seas and asphyxiating atmosphere a fitting setting for the sort of tragic farce which was Ionesco’s chosen metier as a playwright? Is Ionesco our contemporary or is his 1952 play The Chairs just a vehicle for bravura performances, in this case, from Eugene Gilfedder as the Old Man and Jennifer Flowers as the Old Woman who confront the predicament of old age and old habits with a mounting fine edge of rage in Gilfedder’s case, and Flowers with a sly defiance of time that seizes every moment to flirt with the audience.

Ionesco comes to us cloaked in the guise of so-called Theatre of the Absurd. Now the spotlight has been turned on his case in an intelligent, scrupulously realised rendition of this small masterpiece for La Boite in Brisbane. Director Brian Lucas restores Ionesco as the legitimate heir of Feydeau combining an outrageous, surreal sensibility which Ionesco applies with a rationale that, far from being absurd, is, on the contrary, remorselessly logical in the way of clowns. Gilfedder greets an old flame with the declaration that she is as beautiful as ever, while noting the fact that she is going bald. He puncuates the arrival of a high plenipotentiary (God?) by barking like an excited dog. Flowers’ performance achieves the purest heights of comic burlesque when she mimes an act of seduction in her role as dessicated coquette.

Ionesco tells us that his plays have their origins in two basic states of consciousness, “an awareness of evanescence and of solidity, of emptiness and of too much presence.” He sets up an isomorphic resonance in The Chairs between these two qualities to which Brian Lucas seems acutely attuned from the evidence of his own solo works in dance theatre with their intricately crafted visual and kinetic elements and deep concerns with life’s ephemerality and the validity of language. Lucas’s treatment, too, has the light touch which renders his own work so accessible. It may be profound, it may be crazy, you take it or leave it. It illuminated the fact that, for me, Lucas’s own chosen metier is tragic farce, especially his 2010 show, Performance Anxiety (RT96, p30). As a dancer and choreographer, Lucas expressed surprise that he had been asked to direct Ionesco’s classic, but this was a joyful match especially considering that in later life Ionesco turned his attention to dance as a realm to express his ideas.

Through carefully plotted stagecraft, the play makes complex use of presence and absence, but this does not amount, despite Ionesco’s references to the Void, to a metaphysical statement. Integral to his purposes in theatre is the stage design where Bruce McKinven accommodates Ionesco’s stipulations, including symetrically arranged doors in the rear for exits and entrances as in a Feydeau farce. At a significant moment, double doors open onto a blazing wall of light signifying the Void backstage. However, this is a solidly spatial metaphor. Two ladders lead to high windows set on either side of what will eventually emerge as a replica, albeit shabbier, auditorium onstage. Two chairs face downstage.

The Old Man is atop one of the ladders as the play begins, apparently delighting in an ocean vista. When the Old Woman acidly remarks that it is too dark to see, he complains that it wasn’t like that in the old days when it was always light. Their fractious, co-dependent relationship is rapidly established through a series of verbal Punch and Judy cross-purpose conversational gambits while he sits on her lap indulging in a conscious abandonment to self-pity, partly triggered by her lamentations about his wasted talents.

To divert him, the Old Woman initiates a game they have obviously played before. Having rocked him on her knee while singing a soothing lullaby, she introduces the comforting topic of his important message to the world. Reaffirmed, the Old Man resumes his chair and begins to manifest a new, confident personality, a fictional self. He has moved, in his imagination at least, beyond his lowly status as a “master of the mop and bucket.” They sit in silence, momentarily taking on the image of members of an audience in expectation of a performance.

The Old Woman attempts to wind down the game by suggesting they are too tired and should cancel the evening’s performance when the doorbell rings. Startled into febrile activity, they rush to answer it and reappear, escorting and seating onstage an invisible guest with whom they exchange social banalities. From here on the action frenetically escalates into a vaudevillean tour de force. Guests continue to arrive, the Old Man frantically greeting them and the Old Woman struggling to produce chairs for them all. Comic vignettes of social intercourse grind to a halt as the reality of the old couple is overwhelmed onstage by these invisible presences, and they are separated and squeezed to the margins by this new audience-in-waiting. Eventually the Orator (Dan Crestani) who will deliver the Old Man’s message appears as a real, oleaginous, neo-Fascist figure—to the dismay of the Old Woman, she has to touch him to pronounce him “real flesh and blood”—but he studiously ignores the old couple.

Their make-believe mission apparently accomplished, the couple have no choice but to finish the game by committing suicide, somersaulting backwards from their separate perches on the windows into the sea. Faced with the expectations of the real audience in the auditorium merged with those of the invisible audience onstage (all conventional stage boundaries have now dissolved), the Orator struggles to deliver his non-existent message, finally abandoning the attempt and leaving the real audience to contemplate the possibility of their own disappearance into the indelible image created onstage.

Ionesco is gently asking to what extent we avoid interacting with the sheer crazy wonder of life by grounding existence in our own and other people’s fictions, including the theatre’s. If the messengers fail us, we must jump without a parachute into a void of unknowing. After Copenhagen, we must work out our own salvation, and the salvation of the planet. As Ionesco puts it, “Ideology is not the source of art. A work of art is the source and the raw material of ideologies to come.” Judging by the shared smiles tokening a renewed awareness of the unbearable lightness of being, the audience ‘got it.’ This seriously funny production validated Ionesco as a man for our time.


La Boite, The Chairs, writer Eugene Ionesco, translator Martin Crimp, director Brian Lucas, performers Dan Crestani, Jennifer Flowers, Eugene Gilfedder, designer Bruce McKinven, lighting designer Carolyn Emerson, sound designer Brett Collery; Round House Theatre, Brisbane, Jun 5–Jul 4

RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 pg. 8

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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