Review by Carmel Shortall
An old man – a caretaker or general factotum – peers out over the sea as his wife reminds him of all the things he could have been in life but wasn’t. “You’re so clever, you could have been…a general… attorney general… quarter-master general…if you’d just had a bit of ambition in life.”
He breaks from re-hashing the same old stories he has told her every night for 75 years, to tell her that he has invited guests that evening to hear his message. In the past he has quarrelled with people and nursed old grievances – this is his last chance to reveal his message to all mankind. But as he finds it difficult to express himself, he has hired a professional orator to speak for him.
The pace picks up as invisible guests begin to arrive and are seated on the many chairs the old woman is frantically laying out on the stage. Everyone has been invited: the Pope and popinjays, mental specialists and their mental patients, even the Emperor shows up. The two mingle with their invisible guests exposing more frustrations and regrets until the old man makes a speech explaining all his sufferings and setbacks and how no-one took any notice of him even though he could have saved mankind.
Finally the orator (not invisible!) arrives and the old man and woman take their leave for a watery grave, apparently committing suicide. The orator sets up his lap-top to face audiences both invisible and actual then he does not speak but leaves. The lap-top emits a torrent of grunts and groans peppered with words in French. It is a brilliant modern twist on Ionesco’s ending which simply has a ‘mute’ orator unable to convey the old man’s message.
David Brett and Alison Sandford brilliantly convey the two old people – dependant on, but also chiding, each other continually; locked together in a repetitive cycle broken only on this one night, their last. Corin Stuart is suitably enigmatic as the orator – hired for the one function he cannot carry out.
Vasile Nedelcu’s direction brings out the poignancy of the human story as well as the recurring themes of Ionesco’s work. He both updates the play and emphasises its timeless quality by combining details such as the old-fashioned costumes of the characters and the modern technology of the orator’s apple mac. Using the ultimate symbol of modern mass-communication in a play about the impossibility of communication is a bold move.
The Chairs runs for two more days, 27th and 28th August at 4.30pm at The Etcetera Theatre and should really be seen along with The Lesson which follows at 6pm. Atelier Community Theatre have created two excellent productions – both plays complement each other and are linked thematically, highlighting Ionesco’s belief that “communication was impossible”.