An Elderly Couple, an Orator and Dozens of Chairs – Review of The Chairs by Ionesco, Ustinov Theatre, Bath

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Ciaran McIntyre and Janet Amsden

I’m studying Ionesco this year at college, I thought I should use the Ustinov theatre in Bath’s production as an excuse to see one of his plays, while spending the day out and about in one of my favourite cities.

The Ustinov is a wonderful studio theatre in Bath and puts on a great line up of new plays and revivals of work such as The Chairs.

Martin Crimp’s translation was the one used and Janet Amsden and Ciaran McIntyre played the parts of the Old Woman and Old Man respectively. It’s a play that puts huge demands on the actors as they have to imagine the entire rest of the ensemble apart from The Orator, who was played by Geoff Nursey, and most of his part is when the couple have left the stage. Janet Amsden and Ciaran McIntyre played their parts with panache.

I enjoyed this play, but for me something was missing. Having recently read it for college, I have to say I think the Donald Watson translation I read was better. I felt that Martin Crimp had tried to modernise the dialogue too much. I’m going to get a copy of the play in French and read it myself to see which of the two are nearer Ionesco’s. I also felt that the designers by not following Ionesco’s own stage notes created a piece that wasn’t quite as dynamic. The key part of Ionesco’s set I feel are the 9 doors that the old man and woman are repeatedly going in and out of to collect the chairs. The inherent humor of going in one door and out of another door, was not really present in this production and I feel suffered for it.

I also felt The Orators costume was also wrong, this production had him in a military uniform as opposed to how Ionesco describes him; “He looks like the typical painter or poet of the last century, a wide-brimmed felt hat, a loosely tied cravat, an artists jacket, moustache and goatee beard.” The military uniform they gave The Orator, seemed to be taking and inferring things Ionesco never put in the play about The Orator.

I also want to check the original language of the play as in this translation The Emperor was repeatedly referred to as the “King of Kings”, which to me was giving too much attention to a Christology that isn’t in the Donald Watson translation and perhaps not the original.

I also felt that the arranging of the chairs and some of the physical humor didn’t go far enough, the pace wasn’t quite “firing on all cylinders” I thought. The programme tells me that there were three Directors (a director Maria Aberg, assistant, Ailin Conant and movement director, Ayse Tashkiran), perhaps this accounts for why I felt the play didn’t quite reach the punch, I got from reading it. As it did feel a bit muddled rather than having a clear directorial focus, which I feel this play needs.

Don’t let my criticisms put you off though, I did enjoy it, and this play is seldom put on, so it’s worth going to see it as you never know when it’ll be on next. I just wish they’d stuck a bit closer to what Ionesco had written.


One thought on “An Elderly Couple, an Orator and Dozens of Chairs – Review of The Chairs by Ionesco, Ustinov Theatre, Bath

  1. Pingback: Ionesco’s Influence « Theatre Thoughts Blog

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