Review: The Chairs, Stratford Circus

A dishevelled set; a plethora of chairs; an assortment of knick-knacks – Andrea Carr’s set certainly creates a dystopian impression. In this underwater submarine live an old couple (Tim Gebbels and Heather Gilmore) anxiously awaiting the arrival of their invisible guests. All seem to be congregating in anticipation of the arrival of the oracle, a mysterious messenger who brings news that will change everything. Despite their age, the couple both behave in a child-like manner, regressing to tantrums and imagination in preparation for their guests. Are they senile? Are they dreaming of the potential for a hero to save them from their current plight? Have they simply been driven mad under the sea in this depressing and hopeless vessel? As one of Eugene Ionesco’s earliest and most seminal works, The Chairs does not answer these questions. It introduces the concept of absurdist theatre by plunging the audience into the middle of the melodrama – no backstory, no synopsis, no clarity. Martin Crimp’s translation from the original French script retains that baffling feeling that seemingly spirals out of control over the course of 90 minutes.

In order to appreciate this particular piece, it is advisable to throw away any pre-conceptions about the theatre. The need for a backstory, for character development, for a plotline – none of these things happen here. The audience is plunged blindly into the middle of the action and has to feel their way through the production in order to get to grips with the thought processes of the main characters. Gebbels and Gilmore are an endearing match, recounting the same memories from their past lives as if for the first time. Given their age and assumed mental state, everything must seem like a long-distant memory: “the moment it’s over it all feels forgotten”, says Gilmore as she insists that Gebbels re-tells the same story again and again. At times there is a slightly amateur tendency to over-act the emotions, but overall this crazed couple relate well both to each other and to their audience. The invisible guests are treated as if played by real actors and not figments of the imagination; since no-one can see these people everyone is in the same boat, forced to imagine their mannerisms, reactions and movements through the play. Everyone experiences what the actors themselves must face on a daily basis: these two actors are part of Extant Theatre, a leading company for visually impaired performers.

Knowing that this is a production specially designed for a visually impaired audience adds an entirely new dimension to proceedings. Audio descriptions track each actor’s movements; an increased concentration of sound effects helps to bring the play to life in a new way; and Andrea Carr’s set suddenly becomes much more intricate than first meets the eye. The floor is textured with grates and manhole covers so that the actors know exactly where to walk and interact. The props suddenly become movement aids, the mop in particular. The imaginary characters can be treated in exactly the same way for the entire audience. Maria Oshodi’s direction tailors itself for this purpose and the result is a worthwhile experience. It’s still absurd, exactly as Ionesco would have wanted. But it reminds us all that theatre is a full sensory experience; it should not simply be seen, but be felt.

The Chairs played at Stratford Circus until 29 April. For more information and future shows, see the Stratford Circus website. Photo: Terry Braun