JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE CHAIRS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 8.6.12
4 stars ****
THE BLUECOAT THEATRE COMPANY of Ireland have a gift for absurdism; perhaps when you’re based in Sligo, on the far western edge of Europe, the foolishness of the entire continent is more obvious to the eye. The last time the company visited Scotland they delighted audiences at the Traverse and Tron with a vivid music-hall version of Flann O’Brien’s 1939 masterpiece At-Swim-Two-Birds; and this time, at the same two theatres, they plunge forward into the postwar heyday of European absurdism, with a 70-minute staging of Eugene Ionesco’s short play The Chairs, first seen in Paris in 1952.
Written just before Waiting For Godot, The Chairs visibly belongs to the same world as Sam Beckett’s great plays; its two leading characters are an ancient couple who spend the last night of their lives holding an imaginary lecture-party at their island home, at which all the great and good of their time, led by the Emperor himself, turn up to hear a scientific discourse.
Unlike Beckett, though, Ionesco is not a theatrical minimalist; and Niall Henry’s award-winning 2006 production – now revived with two brilliantly wise and eloquent new performances, from Sandra O’Malley and John Carty – exploits the physical, visual and aural dimensions of his work in spectacular style. In the end, the play looks like a remarkable elegy for a once-proud civilisation, for its social order and its tireless quest for knowledge. It’s also striking, though, how this play – written in the year of the Queen’s accession, and now revived at her Diamond Jubilee – is merciless in its satire on the infantilism of those who remained locked into an aristocratic system, as the Old Man bows the loyal knee to the image of an Emperor who has never helped him, but whose mere presence in his house is supposed to lend meaning to the entire narrative of his life.