The Chairs review – slapstick sadness from a spine-shiveringly good duo | Theatre


This may be the perfect time to revive a play about the consolations of the imagination, and of theatre, in the aftermath of apocalypse – and one written by the godfather of the absurd.

In Eugène Ionesco’s 1952 tragic farce, a pair of ancient performers create entertainment out of the nothingness of their living room to fend off fear of the destroyed world outside. Director Omar Elerian’s translation (with added meta elements) reaches for all its laughs and is woven into sparkling gold by husband-and-wife team Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter. The latter comes fresh from playing the witches in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth and the pair are as magnetic as each other.

She is a comic grotesque with the disconcerting movements of a ventriloquist’s dummy, while he looks like a Marx brother. Despite their wizened appearance they are childlike, speaking in Edward Lear-esque nonsense verse and clasping hands for comfort in the pauses.

Their elliptical story of loneliness and the necessity of fantasy foreshadows Beckett’s Endgame (1957) and Happy Days (1961): this couple could be either Nell and Nagg, or Winnie and Willie, if Beckett had turned them into music-hall double acts.

The production builds deftly to the central premise of the play: they are throwing a party for nonexistent guests and seeking comfort in the unseen. Every time the doorbell rings, the couple spring up and shadow-play shows them letting no one in. He flirts with one of the guests; she simulates sex with another. It is a gloriously fizzy cocktail of slapstick, physical theatre and silliness; we are left rapt to drunkenness, caught in their illusion and aware of its madness. It is not arch, head-scratching absurdism but scintillatingly sad comedy.

Laughter gives way to confusion and despair … The Chairs at the Almeida theatre, London.
Laughter gives way to confusion and despair … The Chairs at the Almeida theatre, London. Photograph: Helen Murray

The invisible guests’ arrivals build to ominousness and laughter gives way to confusion, despair and suicide. The play was written in the aftermath of the second world war, and the couple’s trauma and underlying desolation is only caught in snatches at first (“water water everywhere”), but Jackie Shemesh’s warm lighting gradually turns harsh, and they appear whey-faced and ghostly as the script shows glimpses of the obliterated outside world (“London is now dead” and “the sky is red with blood”).

They refer to a lost son, clashing in their accounts of his fate, and we see how the “truth” is only what is palatable for each of them in this bombed-out landscape. Just as TS Eliot’s wartime Four Quartets, recently performed by Ralph Fiennes, resonates for now, Ionesco’s drama does the same, while reaching backwards and forwards, too.

The play spirals into ever bigger circles of absurdism as the stage is turned into a theatre of empty chairs and then dismantled, the god-like “Speaker” at the end bringing a Godot-like void.

The play’s three actors have a shared history in Complicité whose influence is clear here in the meta aspects. We begin with a dressing room conversation “accidentally” broadcasting Magni’s refusal to go out on stage, and there is the presence of an anxious stage manager (Toby Sedgwick) wavering in the wings and furtively creating sound-effects. This brings much delightful humour – there is a “cup of tea” gag and, later, an “invisible table” gag, whose absurdism resembles a Magritte painting.

Cécile Trémolières and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s set is made up of lush layers of curtains to denote dramas within dramas, and Elena Peña and Pete Malkin’s music is orchestral, spooky and cutely comic.

After the couple leave the stage, Sedgwick’s character reflects on what Ionesco intended and how it relates to today. This carries a self-conscious irony – but the couple are an impossible act to follow and the atmosphere sinks, the ending drawn out. It’s still a hugely exciting revival, exciting to watch, with two spine-shiveringly good central performances.

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