At the end, will we know life’s secrets? Will all of our endeavours have been futile? Who, in fact, are we? Delving into the exploration of human existence through the absurd, Blue Raincoat Theatre Company’s take on Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs leaves the audience with endless questions. In the programme note to the original production, Ionesco wrote, “As the world is incomprehensible to me, I am waiting for someone to explain it”. Aren’t we all?
In a sparsely furnished room, an Old Man and an Old Woman sit together on two chairs waiting. They discuss the same stories that they always do. Stopping and starting, the tales are never told the same way twice. Memory eludes them and the past turns gradually from a stark reality to a rose-tinted haze. And still they wait.
The door bell rings. They rise slowly before carefully moving to one of many doors occupying the semi-circular wall that frames the room. They greet the first of their invisible ‘guests’ and another chair is fetched. Soon, a steady flow of unseen arrivals turns into a frantic and beautifully choreographed ballet of entrances and exits as the Old Man welcomes and the Old Woman sets out yet more mismatched chairs. A cacophony of bells disorientates and enhances the frenetic scene until the pace slows once more. The lecture is about to begin. The Orator will be here soon.
Perhaps what Blue Raincoat’s production succeeds in most is its wonderfully physical and empathetic treatment of age. Sandra O’Malley’s Old Woman consistently moves with the grace of frailty, and John Carty’s Old Man delicately and often humorously reveals his struggle with the burden of his years, unable to effectively express his life in words. By the time the Orator arrives to speak on behalf of the Old Man, Niall Henry’s clever direction has driven the couple to opposite sides of the room.
The time comes for the Orator, the only other physical presence in the play, to disclose the Old Man’s secret. Waiting with baited breath for a great revelation, the audience are instead treated to a speaker who, like a clergyman at a funeral, says so much yet so little.
The Chairs is a play of striking resonance, skilfully handled by Blue Raincoat Theatre Company. Immense physicality, heartfelt expression and subtle design seamlessly combine with Ionesco’s humorous and intellectual plot. If there is one quibble to be had, it is that the wonderful facial make-up, which supported characterisation so well, was not continued into the bare hands of the actors whose soft, unworn skin seemed completely incongruous with the rest of their embodiment of the elderly couple. Let this not detract, however, from this detailed and stimulating production.
The Chairs is playing at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow until 16 June. For more information and tickets, see the Tron Theatre website.