Post-apocalyptic pathos: Kate Lovell reviews Extant’s re-mount of Ionescu’s The Chairs at its first tour date at Harlow Playhouse.
Being allowed to touch, push and turn the various dials, switches, keyboards, circuit boards, telephones and buttons on this extraordinarily elaborate set is a childhood dream come true if you are lucky enough to get involved with a Touch Tour. For visually impaired audiences this is an essential interaction to give an understanding of the complexity of the setting for Extant’s production of The Chairs.
The play takes on a strongly post-apocalyptic feel with the space-age set which has a veneer of being high-tech, but is, in fact, a hodgepodge of old-fashioned switches, manual dials, rusting circuitry and deteriorating edges.
Instantly, we are invited to playfully engage with the performance. The blind Old Man describes the ships he can see floating on the sea as he peers out of one of the portholes. The Old Woman who is also visually impaired, immediately refutes his declaration. She claims there are no ships at all.
This sets the tone beautifully for Extant’s clever decision to play with notions of seeing and not seeing in its casting of two visually impaired actors, who spend the majority of the play interacting with invisible audience members who are ostensibly arriving to hear a talk given by the Orator.
To ensure accessibility to a visually impaired audience, the audio description is embedded in the aesthetic of the piece, and is given in the voices of the characters, as if they are describing their own actions in their internal world, which the audience are privy to.
The importance of this soundscape is extended further, when particular lines of dialogue said aloud begin to repeat and play underneath the characters’ speech. Repetition enhances the sense of emptiness in the lives of this isolated couple. They exist in an entirely abandoned space. There is no-one in the world left to respond, so the building itself begins to echo their own words back to them, emphasising their profound aloneness.
As they begin to greet invisible guests, the cracks and difficulties in their relationship are revealed; the sexual frustration, the lost loves and regrets. There is a great irony in their inability to say these intimate feelings to one another, except through the channel of talking to other people, who are not even real.
As the space fills with chairs, the Old Woman runs out of ‘good ones’ and brings on broken, unusable chairs, some with only strips of jagged wood for the seat, some with legs missing, with only a corner remaining. The action evokes both the futility of the objects in a world seemingly without people, and also the experience of becoming visually impaired, seeing only parts of things as vision dims.
Both actors play humour and pathos with a rare deftness: it is notoriously difficult to play absurdist theatre, but Gebbels and Gilmore make us laugh one moment, and feel an awful swell of the heart as we suddenly understand the tragedy of their circumstances the next.
Extant’s production draws out the almost horrifying contemporary resonance of the piece as we note that this space exists amidst swathes of ocean. The world is now a watery one, and the technology once so grand, once so crucial to communication that supports the characters’ world, has broken down. Humans are once more reduced to the reality of an insignificant place in the universe. Extant’s production is a refreshingly ambitious show that brings absurdist theatre firmly into the 21st century, as relevant now in 2016 Harlow as at its first outing in post-war 1950s Europe.
The Chairs will be at the Mac in Birmingham 12-13th April, the Lowry, Salford 15-16th April and Stratford Circus, London 28 – 29th April.
Alongside the show, there are participation workshops giving an introduction to acting in absurdist theatre, open to all and free to attend. Please click on this link to visit the Extant website for more details.