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The Chairs

Eugène Ionesco
Almeida Theatre

Marcello Magni as Old Man and Kathryn Hunter as Old Woman Credit: Helen Murray
Marcello Magni as Old Man and Kathryn Hunter as Old Woman Credit: Helen Murray
Marcello Magni as Old Man and Kathryn Hunter as Old Woman Credit: Helen Murray
Marcello Magni as Old Man and Kathryn Hunter as Old Woman Credit: Helen Murray

This is a new version of Ionesco’s 1952 play translated and directed by Omar Elerian who has not only updated and Anglicised the text but has added a new opening and a changed ending.

There is what looks like a portable radio suspended in front of the curtain that hides the stage. It's there to let the audience eavesdrop on what is going on in the dressing room just before the play starts. The elderly actor and his actress wife due to appear tonight are having an argument. He doesn’t want to go on. Their bickering is a preparation for the play’s metatheatricality, reinforced when the curtain rises by Cécilie Trémolière and Naomi Kuyek-Cohen’s setting: a perspective of swagged curtains.

Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter play the Old Man and the Old Woman, he dark-suited and wan-faced with a tuft of hair atop his head that recalls Grimaldi and commedia tradition, she in black bombazine, long red stockings and a Peter Pan collar wearing a bright red bobbed wig that turns up at the ends (much redder than the ones in the photos) and tripping around like a schoolgirl with arthritis. Partners in real life, they are an exemplary double act. With beautiful timing, they perform this absurdist comedy and its underlying sadness delivering pantomimic rough theatre combined with great finesse.

While the world outside may be approaching a dystopian disaster, this aged couple are expecting visitors. He may say he is only a janitor (though she declares you could have been a great this and or a great that) but they are gathering to hear him make an important pronouncement.

Setting out real chairs, they welcome unseen arrivals, chatting and flirting and bringing in more chairs. Each guest is distinctly identified: the Captain, the Beauty, the one with the red nose, grey hair and thick glasses.

Toby Sedgwick plays an offstage stage manager who sometimes offers assistance by throwing a chair to them or passing a prop out from the wings when a real cup and saucer replaces the ones they have been miming. There’s an hiatus when they can’t put it down on a mimed table. He is glimpsed rushing across the stage red-wigged, the Old Lady’s doppelganger, then they make him stand in for honoured guest the Emperor (rather than mime him like all the other arrivals).

Finally, while the ancient duo climb through the windows to throw themselves into the rising waters outside, he turns into the Speaker for whose arrival they all kept waiting, the man who has been booked to deliver the Old Man’s pronouncement.

In Ionesco’s script, that Speaker turns out to be mute, unable to deliver anything coherently, but Elerian instead offers a speech about Ionesco’s intentions, clarifications that could still be absurdist but it goes on too long and it hasn’t the same style or quite the same hollow echo as the original nihilism.

Magni and Hunter are at the same time hilariously funny and deeply moving. Completely caught up in their imaginary world yet able to make the audience come up and join them, they deliver the essence of theatre and of theatre that reflects the traumas of our own time just as it did those of the 1950s.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton