Review: The Chairs – La Boite Theatre

You could infer that the show must truly be something if it’s memorable weeks later in this age of disposable entertainment. You could infer that I have avoided writing this for as long as I could. You could infer a lot of things. Fact is I was asked to write this because I had seen the show and Greenroom was having difficulty finding time to attend La Boite’s latest production of The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco. So what does that mean?

Firstly, it means I hadn’t intended to put my thoughts forward so they have become fractious and disordered in my head in the weeks since I saw the show. Secondly, it means I am looking at the work with the benefit of hindsight and the handicap of its being most of a month ago. There is much to be said for the school of thought that there are two worlds, things as they are and our ideal versions of them. Finally, it means that I have had quite a few discussions with people about their experiences of the work.  As such, I have had to try and find my way back to what I saw and how I felt about it.

I’ll try now.

When it was announced that Brian Lucas would be directing Eugene Gilfedder and Jennifer Flowers in Martin Crimp’s translation of Ionesco’s The Chairs my ears pricked up; there is a lot to like about that sentence. Brian Lucas’ work as a performer, choreographer and dancer is sublime and singular: an idiosyncratic and brilliant mind coupled with a masterful sense of physical performance. Eugene Gilfedder has, in recent years enjoyed a thoroughly deserved resurgence in his work, best described as brilliant and idiosyncratic, and intense. Jennifer Flowers has been a presence in Australian Theatre for decades, recently as tour director on The Year of Magical Thinking and notably in her Helpmann Award nominated turn in Doubt. Martin Crimp is a fine writer – his Attempts On Her Life is a truly great play, and Ionesco is responsible for some of the most memorable plays of the Absurdist movement. So from the outset there was a lot of excitement and anticipation.

Actually, it wasn’t just me, everyone I spoke to beforehand was the same. Maybe that’s why I have waited to write this, taking time to remove the play I wanted from the play I got – there is nothing worse than a review that spends its time talking about what should have been done.

So here’s what I saw.

You enter the Roundhouse from the top of the seating banks to find the space filled with a thrust platform – a trend I am pleased to see continuing as the new space’s fourth bank never really worked as the best place to see a show.  It’s all backed by a simple wall with a series of doors and curtained openings and a pair of high windows. There is a sense of Bruce McKinven’s set appearing intentionally unfinished – in the fiction of the work, that is.  So, it’s a work in progress or perhaps something fallen into disrepair; either reading can be supported thematically and by the presence of a pair of ladders. A hole at the downstage end of the thrust’s floor smokes eerily, and the space has a sparse, whitewashed feel.

It begins. We meet the Old Man and the Old Woman. Gilfedder and Flowers are both mesmerising as they shuffle about playing games with each other, reminiscing on their lives together and giving us tantalising clues about a world outside that has fallen into chaos. Paris has burnt and their home on an island may be the last vestiges of civilisation.

There is no doubting the skill of the performers and their handling of the dense, circuitous text and non sequiturs that fill the dialogue. Both Gilfedder and Flowers move through it with ease, shifting mood and tone, subject and logic with a light touch.

There is no doubting the skill of the performers and their handling of the dense, circuitous text and non sequiturs that fill the dialogue. Both Gilfedder and Flowers move through it with ease, shifting mood and tone, subject and logic with a light touch. It was difficult to hear a few of Flowers’ lines on opening night but I’m willing to put that down to the infamous acoustics of the Roundhouse, my position on the far edge of the right side of the middle bank, as well as my own hearing.

The production’s treatment of Ionesco’s rhetorical devices caught my attention, particularly given the play itself leads up to the delivery of the Old man’s Magnum Opus – an oratory designed to impart to the audience the meaning of everything. Most notable amongst these devices is the Old Woman’s repetition of Master as she lists the possibilities for things her beloved husband may have been but wasn’t. Instead of showing us the pattern with the continued stress falling on each use of the word master, the delivery instead chose to find more import in the possible positions listed rather than their rank. This is not a criticism, just an observation of an interesting choice.

The old couple in their nineties are preparing for the arrival of guests, all coming to hear the Old Man’s message. However, we need not fear that the Old Man will fail in his delivery, for an Orator is coming to deliver the message. A noise outside signals the arrival of the first guest, and the Old Man and Woman then fill the chairs with their intangible and non-existent guests. We could infer that the old couple are insane, playing a game, senile and demented, or maybe the last people alive. Whatever our observation, the performers’ skillful physicality, focus and delivery of the set pieces in which chairs are brought in and populated is wonderfully self-assured. A continual stream of farce-like entrances and exits through the set’s nooks and crannies ensues. The cast of hundreds, eventually millions (“everyone” is there) are all described as the space, once empty, now becomes littered with populated yet empty chairs.  The old couple are eventually overwhelmed; they become separated and trapped on the ladders, pinned to the walls in an invisible crowd.

One of the production’s most memorable images occurs as Gilfedder hangs and moves around his ladder with a strength and dexterousness that, despite being at odds with the age of his character, is fantastic to see and, given the shifting logic and meaninglessness of Absurdist work, totally appropriate.

One of the production’s most memorable images occurs as Gilfedder hangs and moves around his ladder with a strength and dexterousness that, despite being at odds with the age of his character, is fantastic to see and, given the shifting logic and meaninglessness of Absurdist work, totally appropriate.

Finally the Orator arrives and, in an interesting twist that must have been stunning when the work was first performed in the 1950s, the Orator is another performer visible to the audience, and not just another empty chair.  Given the way the production was advertised, I wonder if it was intentional that Dan Crestani’s involvement was kept so low key.  Those not privy to the plot would enjoy the wonderful shock that is the arrival of another person after we have spent so much time in the minds of the Old Couple and their horde of imaginary (or possibly just invisible) guests. The Orator’s entrance from the centre bank of seats, pulling us into and out of the fiction at the same time is a nice touch given that we are implicitly part of the “everyone” that the Old Couple have gathered for the message.

Crestani’s work as the Orator is beautiful, a physical performance of detail, strength and articulation that brings a wonderfully surreal tone to the climax of the work

Crestani’s work as the Orator is beautiful, a physical performance of detail, strength and articulation that brings a wonderfully surreal tone to the climax of the work – a climax that involves the Old Couple happily committing suicide safe in the knowledge that the Old Man’s message will be delivered. Gilfedder and Flowers, having spent the best part of eighty minutes weaving a special type of mad coherently-incoherent magic, exit from the second story window of the set, and we hear their splashes as the Old couple fall to their watery graves. It soon becomes apparent that the Orator is incapable of oratory – in the original text he is described as a deaf mute. He tries to speak, is frustrated and, finally, with what appears to be a sense of desperation, writes a cryptic statement in chalk on the wall, rubs it out, writes another phrase and exits off the stage. Crestani exited via one of the theatre tunnels, taking us out of the fiction and back again. The audience were left observing the empty stage, full of chairs.

I left feeling (and here’s why I have had all this trouble) feeling – nothing. That’s not to say that feeling is the only satisfactory result that theatre can evoke (or should), but given or perhaps because of my excitement and anticipation I was expecting to feel elated or perhaps even changed.

Here was a truly great group of creatives at the top of their games, with a great text being handled with skill, but I came away feeling nothing. I appreciated the work aesthetically and intellectually, I had laughed and been genuinely thrilled by the piece whilst watching, but came away with a distinct impression that, whilst I had certainly enjoyed The Chairs, I hadn’t found myself moved or challenged by it.

The direction is solid and its attention to the physicality of the piece supports the work’s wordplay and farcical structure.  The performances were uniformly wonderful, the design was well considered, the lighting and sound unobtrusive and supportive, and the sum was entirely greater than the parts; as entertainment it was successful. As for me, I can only assume that my own anticipation couldn’t possibly be surpassed by any real performance.  In the theatre of my head the Old Man’s message (Ionesco’s play) was the meaning of everything and not the absence of meaning that is the philosophical basis of Absurdism. The only other time I have ever felt something akin was the first time I heard the Sex Pistols.  The experience then was one of confusion; surely this wasn’t punk? It was almost melodic by the standards that I had created in my head.  I was expecting the sound might destroy the living room and quite possibly the social order in my suburb. Instead Anarchy in the UK blared out, I bopped along and smiled, but the world hadn’t changed around me – my confusion.

So yes, if the mark of a great show is that it is intellectually stimulating, aesthetically pleasing and stays with you in some way, then La Boite’s current season of The Chairs is a  great show. It’s testament to the quality of the artists involved that I could only ever be slightly disappointed that it wasn’t the end of the world as I knew it – but thanks to everyone involved for making that seem possible! Maybe the potential for that world-changing experience is a good as it gets; all artists are the Old Man and all performers are the Orator. Ionesco always held that the most important moment of the play was the final moments, which he described thus:

The last decisive moment of the play should be the expression of … absence … at this moment the audience would have in front of them … empty chairs on an empty stage decorated with streamers, littered with useless confetti, which would give an impression of sadness, emptiness and disenchantment such as one finds in a ballroom after a dance; and it would be after this that the chairs, the scenery, the void, would inexplicably come to life (that is the effect, an effect beyond reason, true in its improbability, that we are looking for and that we must obtain), upsetting logic and raising fresh doubts.

So maybe my absence of feeling is perfectly valid.

There are performances left, just go and see it.

GUEST POST: Lucas Stibbard makes theatre, sometimes as an actor, sometimes as a director/facilitator, sometimes as a teacher and, memorably, once as a stage-manager. He has done so for himself as well as for companies such as Bell Shakespeare, Queensland Theatre Company, State Theatre Company of South Australia, La Boite, Metro Arts, DeBase Productions, Hothouse Theatre, Kite, Queensland University of Technology, the Aboriginal Center for the Performing Arts, the Queensland Arts Council and Windmill Theatre Company. Lucas is one-quarter of the Escapists whose shows include Attack of the Attacking Attackers!, boy girl wall, and the in-development Revenge of the Revenging Revengers!. Lucas studied at USQ. For context, some of his favourite shows have been – Gatz (Elevator Repair Service), Anna Karenina (Shared Experience), C-90 (Daniel Kitson), Roadkill (Splintergroup) and 11&12 (Theatre des Bouffes du Nord) – so if you didn’t enjoy those you probably shouldn’t trust his (highly subjective) reviews. He is partial to cardigans, gin and his wife.  Follow him on Twitter @LucasStibbard

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