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Posts Tagged ‘Eugene Ionesco’

The early 1950’s saw a revolution in theatre, well in Paris at least, with the arrival of Beckett and Ionesco (one Irish and one Romanian), challenging the realism that the art form was locked in. This play, and Becket’s Waiting for Godot, were first produced there in 1952. It reached the UK five years later where it ignited a debate amongst theatre folk, triggered by critic Kenneth Tynan and involving the playwright and theatrical luminaries like Orson Wells. Around the same time our own angry young men heralded a new age of realism with their kitchen sink dramas, led by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

This was an important part of the post-war history of theatre. Surprising then that this appears to be only the second major London revival. I saw the first, a 1997 co-production between the Royal Court and Complicite directed by Simon McBurney with the late Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan. This proved to be the most unlikely transfer to Broadway, garnering five Tony nominations. Twenty four years on….

The ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’ live on an island. They are preparing to welcome an (invisible) audience to hear the old man’s big speech, though it will be given by the speaker. We learn that London is no more, so we are in some sort of dystopian future. They assemble chairs for the visitors and when they arrive welcome them, making introductions between them. It’s all building up to the big moment, the speech.

Omar Elerian’s translation / adaptation / direction takes a lot of liberties, either with the permission of Ionesco’s estate (Beckett’s would never let him get away with it) or maybe the protected period has lapsed. There’s a backstage audio prologue, the speaker turns up regularly for bits of business and interaction and the speech is replaced by an elongated epilogue, which was the only variation I felt pushed it too far. Otherwise, an obtuse period piece was brought alive for a new audience.

It’s hard to imagine better interpreters than husband and wife team Marcello Magni & Kathryn Hunter whose extraordinary physical theatre and mime skills, as well as the chemistry between them, are used to great effect. Toby Sedgwick provides excellent support in the expanded role of the speaker. Even Cecile Tremolieres & Naomi Kuyok-Cohen’s clever design gets to perform.

It was great to see the play again after a quarter century of theatre-going. The production may travel a long way from Ionesco’s intentions, but it seemed to me to provide a fresh interpretation for an audience seventy years later. London’s longest running play is The Mousetrap, 70 years now. Paris’ longest runner is Ionesco’s earlier absurdist play The Bald Primadonna, 65 years. That somehow defines the differing theatre cultures of the two cities.

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We don’t see many Theatre of the Absurd plays these days (well, apart from Beckett, if you include him), and its an important part of the history of modern theatre, so it’s good to catch this one. Ionesco only wrote something like nine full-length plays, and four of them feature the character Berenger, three as some sort of everyman, but here as King Berenger, in the last 98 minutes if his life.

He’s lived for 483 years, but his kingdom is shrinking and crumbling and his health deteriorating. His household consists of two Queens, doctor, guard and servant. They encourage him to accept his fate, but he’s determined to hang on to life and power, which is how we spend the 98 minutes. Queen Marguerite (Indira Varma, lots of majestic presence and authority) is the realistic, stern one. Queen Marie (Amy Morgan, delightfully coquettish), his favourite, French, is much more flaky and emotional. The Doctor (the excellent Adrian Scarborough) is a somewhat offhand doom merchant. The very put-upon servant is forever clearing up (Debra Gillet, lovely) and the Guard (a rare appearance from Derek Griffiths) acts as a sort of MC, most of the time from his elevated position in the Throne Room.

Anthony Ward’s cartoonish design cleverly reduces the stage size by a back wall, and projects the action forward into the stalls with a carpeted platform. I don’t know if or how Patrick Marber’s adaptation differs (he also directs, again). It’s impossible to say what it is about because it’s not clear what it’s about, except coming to terms with death. You just need to go along for the ride, enjoy the fine acting, especially Rhys Ifans’ towering performance as The King, and add to your education in 20th century drama. Ionesco plays don’t come along that often (I’ve only seen two others), and it’s good to see this one at last. Just don’t ask me to explain it!

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