The Chairs at Almeida Theatre
The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco is a farcical tragicomedy that follows an elderly couple’s frantic preparation for guests at their isolated home. While Ionesco’s contribution to the theatre of the absurd has been dusted off several times since its first performance in 1952, this production, directed and translated by Omar Elerian, remains both delightfully charming and thought-provoking.
In this production, the roles of Old Man and Old Woman are taken on by real-life husband and wife Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter – which adds yet another layer to the meta-universe they are constructing on stage. Together, they embark upon a frantic evening wherein they welcome guests into their decrepit home so that the Old Man can finally share his story through the voice of the illustrious (and yet to arrive) speaker. Though they continually pull new chairs onto the stage and embark on colourful conversations with their guests, there is nobody there. Which begs the question: is anyone really listening?
Ionesco himself had referred to these characters as über-marionettes, taken straight from Commedia Dell’arte, and this is evident within this production as their actions seem to be dictated by forces invisible to the audience. It’s farcical, intensely physical and sometimes downright ludicrous, but it certainly makes for an exciting night of theatre. Magni and Hunter are stunning on stage, their real-life relationship bringing a new intensity to the characters. Magni is depressingly endearing in the role of a man, whose life seems to have run away from him, while the Olivier-award winning Hunter breathes light into the darkest moments. The pair are well supported throughout by Toby Sedgwick as the dutiful, yet often misguided stagehand, waiting for his chance to emerge as the speaker.
The staging (Cecile Tremolieres and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen) is genuinely spectacular, simultaneously evoking the image of a room full of party dwellers and a neglected property on the edge of the world where its lonely residents dance through a sea of empty seats and dust.
While, in many ways, The Chairs remains faithful to the original text, there are notes of its contemporary setting: the Old Man, initially reluctant to take to the stage, begs his wife to call off the show and say that he has Covid. And yet, there still seems to be something missing that limits the production turning into something current, despite its residual themes of isolation, restlessness and dissatisfaction aligning with the public consciousness in light of the pandemic. Instead, the experience feels like a return to the slapstick theatre of the past – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Elerian also decided to rewrite the ending, which causes the momentum built upon the speaker’s arrival to fall apart somewhat (as, aptly, does the staging around him). Direct audience address again blurs the line between what is real and what is pretend, making for a compelling resolution. In short, The Chairs is a witty, entertaining production that is sure to evoke plenty of laughter and pathos from audience members.
Photos: Helen Murray
The Chairs is at Almeida Theatre from 5th February until 5th March 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.