The irony of reviewing The Shepherd’s Chameleon, a play written by Eugène Ionesco as a barbed response to his critics, is inescapable. The play is itself an exploration, perhaps a criticism, of a certain type of criticism. This absurdist farce is a bold choice for a debut play by new company Utopia Theatre, performed at the CLF Arts Café (a.k.a the Bussey Building) in Peckham.
The show is described as a “physical rendition” of the play. Director Moji Kareem says she intentionally cast actors from a physical theatre background, and this is evident. The cast deliver larger-than-life performances whilst grappling with a mind-boggling text.
The play begins surreally enough. We enter a space, designed by Kady Howey Nunn, strewn with piles of books, newspapers and manuscripts. The actors are already there, perhaps in keeping with the company’s desire to “engage and communicate directly with the audience”. One sits upstage in a chair facing away from us, looking at an enormous white screen on which dramatic shadows are thrown. Another stands teetering on her tiptoes, oblivious to us, seemingly occupied by visions or inner turmoil. A third sits and looks at us combatively. Two of these performers, Olivia Nicholson and Lucie Chester, along with a third who enters later, Sarah Sharman, play three versions of the same character, Bartholomeus. They work together well with their exaggerated and cartoonish performances. This is a style of acting which, though occasionally grating, suits the absurd nature of the piece perfectly. In opposition to these three roles is the understated performance of Thomas Solberg, playing Ionesco himself. Solberg’s performance is subtle and unassuming, which is just as it should be as he acts as a contrast to the other characters, and also as the ‘real’ character with whom the audience can properly engage. However, the performance was in danger of being underwhelming at times.
The action begins with a movement sequence, well-choreographed by Gerrard Martin, involving the slow tearing of pages from books and silent speaking, as two actors mirror each other. Sitting in their graveyard of information and text, the play begins by drawing attention to one of the central discussions of the work: who creates and curates meaning, and how is it contained? This is a particularly pertinent question in the age we live in, with its abundance of language and communication of such varying levels of value and meaning.
The play’s text is cyclical and repetitive, with three performers representing just one of Ionesco’s critics. They argue with the reluctant Ionesco and amongst themselves, about theatricality, meaning and existence. This multi-layered conversation gradually grows more and more complex and, as an audience member, you do have to keep on your toes. However, the small company wrestles with this difficult text admirably, and presents it with simplicity and clarity. The movement and the physical nature of the performance support and balance the text well, but more could have been done to create a greater impact. Nevertheless, the play is sharp and effective, directed with precision by Kareem.
The Shepherd’s Chameleon is playing at the CLF Art Café/Bussey Building until 25 May. For more information and tickets, see the CLF Art Café website.