Reviews: Theatre: Is this seat taken?

Ionesco's 'The Chairs'

Theatre de Complicite, Royal Court

Precisely 40 years after its English premiere at the Royal Court, Ionesco's The Chairs returns to this theatre in a splendid production by Simon McBurney that should leave no seat in the house unfilled. On stage, of course, it's a different matter. The Chairs is the Theatre of the Absurd's bleakly farcical answer to Harvey, the old American play about a man who goes round in the company of an invisible/ imaginary six-foot white rabbit. When the lights went up at the interval of a recent West End revival of Harvey, I turned to the empty seat next to me and suggested a drink in the bar. To make the same joke about The Chairs, you would have to have the entire stalls to yourself.

A pair of old troupers still at the peak of their powers, Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers are Ionesco's cracked elderly couple. Stuck in a water- girt tower (where he is janitor) and in a folie a deux, they reminisce and eventually crowd the stage with invisible guests who are, so to speak, conspicuous by their absence, thanks to the skill with which McEwan and Briers mime the minutiae of hectic hosting and panicked hob-nobbing.

A thin, bandy-legged, lumpy-stockinged hag with a crazedly serene and gracious smile, McEwan gives a performance of stunning vocal and physical control. Via the bright, feathery swoops of her voice, she lets you hear undercurrents of unease in the character's deluded, Mrs Micawberish doting on a husband who has never (in Martin Crimp's excellent translation) been anything more than "master of the mop and bucket". McEwan can steer a sigh all the way from potty pleasure to trailing doubt. As the "arrivals" develop a mad momentum, with buzzers, bells and "Avon lady" chimes mounting to a dazing cacophony and the multiple doors of the Quay Brothers' spooky set going into slapstick uproar, McEwan careers bandily in and out, dragging ever more chairs after her, like someone aiming for the gold, silver and bronze in a Crackpot Caretaker of the Century award.

Alternating between ramrod-backed bluff and "poor me" mummy's-boy huffiness, Briers movingly suggests a man who compensates for failure by believing himself to carry a message that must be passed on to mankind. The futility of having a message (and, self-reflexively, of writing The Chairs) is brought home when the old couple jump to their deaths, in the mistaken belief that the man's message will be communicated by the orator who has at last arrived. But he turns out to be a deaf mute and a costumed fraud who scribbles nonsense on one of the doors.

By contrast, McBurney's masterly production communicates all the play's tricky, tragi-farcical elements, adding a potent sense of metaphysical mystery. At the magical start, we have the illusion that we are being rowed circuitously towards the couple's shuttered window, as it sways splashingly towards us from the back of the darkened stage. But who or what is taking us there? And who is the Emperor, signified here by a pair of white gloves picked out by a prowling spotlight? These are enigmas, not muddles: for 90 unbroken minutes, The Chairs keeps you glued to your seat.

To 20 Dec, Royal Court Downstairs (Duke of York's), St Martin's La, London WC2 (0171-565 5000)

Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

    £17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'