The Lowry, Salford Quays
Ionescu’s The Chairs is an absurdist play, depicting the claustrophobic relationship between an Old Man and an Old Woman, excitedly preparing for the arrival of an orator. They have invited ‘everybody’ to hear the Old Man’s discovery, but the guests, when they arrive, are all invisible, and we, the audience, do not know if they are real. This, it seems, is a post-apocalyptic world, and the Old Man and the Old Woman might just be the sole survivors.
It’s an interesting premise, and the translation (by Martin Crimp) is beautifully done. The set is charming too: a dilapidated, shonky-looking research station, which reminds me, oddly, of 1980s kids’ TV. It works, creating that other-wordly vibe that the piece needs; it’s unsettling and strange.
Extant is a performing arts company of visually impaired people, and their production has some excellent features. I loved the audio recordings of stage directions, spoken by the actors, describing what they were doing as they did it. It worked: not only was it a means of “integrating access for visually impaired audience members” (director Maria Oshodi), it also added to the surreal nature of the piece.
The stand-out moment is the chair-setting scene, which sees the Old Woman bringing out chair after chair, each one more damaged than the last, until, in the end, she produces a single broken leg. The frenzied tension developed in this sequence is mesmerizing – and very funny too.
The acting is good, with Heather Gilmore (Old Woman) clearly reveling in the comedy, while Tim Gebbels (Old Man) has a calmer, more serious presence. The relationship between the two is convincing, and the dynamic is strong. Their blindness adds an extra dimension to the play: the guests’ invisibility imbued with new layers of meaning, as the whole notion of ‘what we can see’ is given prominence.
If there’s a problem with this piece, it’s that it’s all a bit one-note. It feels long and quite repetitive; the mood never really shifts. The truth is, it’s too similar to the more familiar (and slightly later) Endgame – and it’s not as good. Ionescu got there first, but Beckett did it best.