The Bald Prima Donna – Upstairs at the Gatehouse – Review

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Eugene Ionesco’s works are seldom on in the capital unfortunately. The Bald Prima Donna, is his earliest work and Slip of The Lip present this quirky and fun piece of theatrical absurdity with a minimalistic set and Ionesco’s nonsensical dialogue flowing thick and fast.

The Martin’s have popped over to the Smith’s who live in a comfortable London suburb, one Friday night. What unfolds is not your usual naturalistic play, but rather a pertinent observation on the vacuous nonsense most of us spend our time talking about! Therein lies the inherent humour of the piece and there were plenty of moments where we chuckled and laughed out loud at the absurdity presented before us. Whilst acknowledging to ourselves that we too probably sound like this sometimes.

The cast of six throw themselves into Ionesco's strange world with great abandon,

The cast of six throw themselves into Ionesco’s strange world with great abandon,

Peter Eastbrook as Mr Martin had a wonderfully deadpan delivery of his lines which only heightened the humour. Perhaps the most obtuse and crazy lines are delivered by the Fireman portrayed with a wonderful nervousness by Guy Remy. Alice Devine is a feisty Mrs Martin and Griselda Williams being the mumsy linchpin of the piece. Brian Merry brings a brooding menace to Mr Smith. Annie McKenzie rounds off the cast with an exuberant performance as the maid Mary.

Paul Hoskins direction allows the surreal world of the play to be brought to life and he allows the script to draw us in I’m pleased to say. This is not an easy play to perform as the fluidity of script and thought means the actors have to be concentrating constantly. They ably threw themselves into Ionesco’s strange world. Yet they also used it as a mirror to our own world and the repetitive speech patterns we all use and the awkward silences that permeate conversations.

As it is his first play, it lacks some of the refinement of Ionesco’s later works. It’s not his best piece but is an enjoyable romp through our incongruous world of speech and miscommunication. Theatre of the Absurd is often seen as a niche of the theatre world, but I find Ionesco’s work much more accessible than most of Beckett’s so don’t be put of if you’re unsure what to expect. I was pleased to finally get to see a production of this rarely performed piece.

STARS : ★ ★ ★

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Theatrical Perfection? – The Blue Dragon – The Barbican Theatre London – Review

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Tai Wei Foo in The Blue Dragon

Why do I go to the theatre regularly? To be entertained? To be challenged? Because I’m a student of the art form? Yes to all of these but my primary aim is to be changed. A lofty aim no doubt, and to be honest it seldom happens, but every so often it does, and it’s the most incredible experience.

Since commencing my Theatre Studies back in 2005 there have been several seminal events in my theatrical life. One of which was hearing Robert Lepage lecture at my college in my first year of study. His passion, vision and clarity struck me, and following that lecture I researched more into his work, and his life.  I’ve been fortunate to see some of his work via video, but never live. The chance to see his new play and with him in it, made it top of my list for theatrical visits this year. I was also fortunate to see TOTEM also by Lepage this year and I found that an inspiring theatrical event.

So I booked this ticket solely on the fact that it was a Lepage play, but as I then read more about it, I became more and more intrigued. It focuses on Pierre Lamontagne, the character Lepage created for his Dragon’s Trilogy just over 25 years ago. We revisit this character in Shanghai and catch up with him and his life. Lepage plays Pierre, in what is one of the best portrayals I’ve seen on stage. Following this post recently a friend commented to me that, it’s great when you see a play and you forget the actor, and you become immersed in the world on stage and that character. Lepage was an object lesson in this, he WAS Pierre. Likewise Tai Wei Foo and Marie Michaud who played Xiao Ling and Claire respectively also created believable characters on stage. More than that though I cared for these characters and their decisions and their lives.

Tai Wei Foo as Xiao Ling and Marie Michaud as Claire

For me this was why this play was so special, it had heart and soul, and I felt part of their world as I could see it was a reflection of my own world. We live in a Globalised world now and Theatre is responding to that in various ways, one is to simply produce the same musicals everywhere – a Chinese version of Les Mis opened in 2008. More Cameron Mackintosh productions are to follow in China too. Whilst this is one way of reacting to the new world, I feel Lepage’s is more organic and more beneficial.  The Blue Dragon felt that each culture was respected and brought to the melting pot. That’s not to say only the good parts of each culture were displayed, far from it, the small-minded view of the Québécois that Pierre escaped from was shown as well as the harshness of life in China, but Lepage never went over to melodrama, his characters have to put up with problems like we all do, they got on, made decisions and lived with them. That is why this play resonated with me so much, it felt tangible and real, like few plays do. The speech of the play is in English, French and Mandarin (with subtitles) as and when required, rather than being confusing it simply helped to add to the realism and also the difference in speech tones and rhythms between the three languages was striking to hear.  As someone who works in a cosmopolitan city and work environment, different languages being spoken at anytime is not something that I’m unfamiliar with, again it’s part of being in the 21st Century Globalised world. One thing the play highlighted is something we’ve known for a long time, but was dramatically shown here, we’ll all be hearing more Mandarin in the future, more  than French and English perhaps?

Robert Lepage as Pierre Lamontagne

Lepage is known for his use of theatrical effects and this play is no different, but again, the effects, staging and lighting fit in seamlessly, and help to tell the story. This is theatre for a 21st century audience that isn’t afraid to use visual and cinematic ideas. The set gave me a feeling of “widescreen” and the clever staging utilised one aspect that theatre is especially suited to, that of working vertically whereas film is primarily a horizontal view, Lepage blended to the two genres and played to the strength of each.

I especially loved the tribute to Herge’s book The Blue Lotus in this play. As the programme states, for many (myself included) this book was probably the first time that many of us encountered China and the images Herge paints certainly have left their mark on generations of westerners.

A few subtle references are made to this throughout

It’s refreshing to go to the theatre and be surprised, challenged and inspired and all in the same night! That is how I felt having watched The Blue Dragon.  The playwright Eugene Ionesco talked about his work and the “two fundamental states of consciousness” between which he moved, “an awareness of evanescence and of solidity, of emptiness and too much presence, of the unreal transparency of the world and its opacity, of light and of thick darkness.” ( see his book Notes and Counter Notes) I got a sense of this last night, especially between the evanescent and solidity of the characters lives and of my own too, something that had been fairy cerebral until last night.

So to call this “Theatrical Perfection” is indeed a HUGE and outlandish claim, but for me, it was pretty close, something to aspire to and be inspired by.

Ionesco’s Influence

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Ionesco knows how I feel when an assignment is due for college

Well by this time next week, my next assignment for college will be done and dusted. It’s for my Theatre of the Absurd module. Every module with college, stretches me and opens my eyes to other ways of doing theatre and throughout the last few years, I’ve gained a list of theatre practitioners that I’ve grown to love and admire their work.

Ionesco is the one for me from this module. As my tutor has remarked he is quite “unfashionable” at the present time, and this is represented by the lack of material on him and his work available in English. This is a real shame, as I’ve found his plays, witty, thought-provoking and in the context of The Theatre of the Absurd and theatre generally, very influential.

I saw his play The Chairs last year and I reviewed it here. I mentioned at the time, that I wasn’t too keen on how they’d presented it, and the more I’ve read of Ionesco’s own writings and thoughts on that and other plays of his, I have to say I think they missed the mark from what Ionesco envisaged.

Unlike other Theatre of the Absurd writers (especially Beckett), Ionesco wasn’t shy of telling others what his intentions were. While part of Beckett’s enigma is his refusal to define or talk about his writings (even though he was exacting on how they were to be performed and that his text was definitive), Ionesco in many cases leaves no doubt as to what is representing what. As someone who is writing academic papers on him, it’s refreshing to be able to quote and consult the writer. His plays do however give the audience and performers the chance to bring their own thoughts and interpretations to it, and he frequently changed his work while it was being originally performed, based on how it was being received by the audiences seeing it being performed live.

His book, Notes and Counter Notes is certainly in my top ten of favourite books on theatre (I must do a post and perhaps create a page dedicated to them), and I recommend it wholeheartedly to you if you have an interest in theatre or Theatre of the Absurd. Some choice gems are;

” One must write for oneself, for it is in this way that one may reach others.”

“A genuine dramatist has the theatre in his bones, he expresses himself spontaneously in the medium of drama, which is his natural idiom.”

“There is only one thing that I’m sure of. It is that my plays make no claim to save the world or prove that some men are better than others.”

“A play is a whole performance, the subject is only a pretext, and the text is only a score.”

As part of the Theatre of the Absurd movement, his work is obviously part of that mindset and influenced by existentialist writings and the turmoil of post war France. While the world has moved on, I find there is much in these writings that resonates with me and I agree with Ionesco’s concern to express the absence of meaning in life. His allusions to fascism and totalitarianism while more pertinent in 1950’s France, there are still similar political and religious regimes still with us, and may well be in ascendency in the next few decades.

So while much is rightly owed to Beckett, I feel that perhaps Ionesco has been sidelined, his play The Bald Soprano was the first absurdist play put on in France and the his play The Lesson the first absurdist play put on in UK and the innovations that genre brought to theatre as an art form do seem to be forgotten by some.

Influencers of The Theatre of the Absurd

Another reason Ionesco and his writings have appealed to me is his influence by the great early movie stars such as Charlie Chaplain, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton (who would later appear in Beckett’s Film) and the Marx Brothers (whom Ionesco cited as his greatest influence). These acts had their grounding in theatre and many of their theatre skits were transferred direct onto celluloid. Again many forget these stars theatrical roots. The Marx Brothers would tour and perform their skits before theatre audiences, find out what worked best with the live audience before committing it finally to film. The absurdity of these performers is perhaps easier to see with hindsight. Slapstick humour, absurdity of language and visual imagery all key components of Theatre of the Absurd and its genesis can be seen in these early films. It’s also been great that as a fan of these films I can watch them and claim it’s for my college course!

So if you’re not aware of Ionesco, I recommend finding a copy of some of his plays and giving them a read, or seeing a play of his if one is put on near you. Two of his plays are constantly running in Paris (The Bald Soprano and The Lesson) and have been since 1957! I’m keen to try to catch them later this year if at all possible. Other plays of his I’ve enjoyed are The Chairs,and Rhinoceros (regarded by many as his best). Once my assignment is done, I’m looking forward to working my way through all his works. Which shows how much I like his writings as very few writers have I wanted to and read all their works.

Anyway, I’d better crack back on with my assignment as I don’t get marks for my blog posts unfortunately!

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.