Pros: An intriguing play, approaching sound and vision from a completely new angle.
Cons: The level of eccentricity made the story difficult to follow.
The Chairs was a first for me, in that it is produced by Extant, a company of visually impaired practitioners. For this reason, I expected the piece to be rich in sound design, which it certainly was. What I didn’t expect, were the striking visual elements of the play and the ways in which both senses were used together.
The play follows the interactions of two elderly characters, Old Woman (Heather Gilmore) and Old Man (John Wilson Goddard) who live in an isolated building, surrounded by water. The couple awaits the arrival of The Orator who is to deliver a world-changing speech, on behalf of the Old Man. During this time, they welcome a procession of invisible guests who sit in rows of chairs, forming the Orator’s audience.
I was surprised to find that the ‘guests’ themselves were not the main focus of the production. Instead, they present a platform for the couple to explore an incredible range of themes and ideas. In my opinion, this is an extremely interpretative piece; the dialogue is eccentric and doesn’t follow normal patterns of conversation, the characters’ situation and relationship to one another is ambiguous. The play doesn’t offer easy answers as to why; it is up to us to draw conclusions as we watch.
For me, the play opened discussion about age, sexuality, relationships and most notably, communication. The Old Man for example, gives profound speeches but ultimately struggles to express his message, eventually putting his faith in another to do it for him. The casting of visually impaired actors in the lead roles, adds another dimension to this, as they work to communicate with both visually impaired and sighted audience members.
This communication is aided by a clever use of sound. Stage directions are played aloud over the auditorium in the characters’ voices, providing insight for those visually impaired members of the audience. Interestingly, the emotive tone in which they were read felt to me like listening to the characters’ thoughts. During one memorable sequence, layered voices, horns and doorbells even create claustrophobia in an essentially empty stage.
Gilmore and Wilson show phenomenal stamina, delivering a huge amount of dialogue with no lapse in energy from start to finish. Portraying characters of complex depth, the apparently nonsensical nature of the script adds another level to their achievement. With such a small cast and a relatively empty space (until the chairs arrive that is) imaginative direction keeps the piece feeling dynamic and varied. Ironically, this is perhaps showcased most by the ‘invisible’ characters, which exist entirely through the performance of the two actors and a few well-placed sound effects.
The subject matter and format of The Chairs, makes watching it quite an intense experience. The moments of humour were gratefully received by the audience and I felt as though a few more of these might have been appreciated. At times, the farcical nature of the two characters’ behaviour made the action difficult to follow. Whilst this did peak my curiosity as to their motivation, a more gradual development of their eccentricities might have made this stronger.
The Chairs is an interesting play that cleverly explores the relationship between sight and sound, along with a myriad of questions around the human mind. Open to much interpretation, I am still puzzling over this one a day later. An intriguing evening for anyone who enjoys the abstract and absurd.
Director: Maria Oshodi
Author: Eugene Ionesco
Translation: Martin Crimp
Sound Design: Peter Bosher
Box Office: 020 8692 4446
Booking Link: http://www.thealbany.org.uk/event_detail/1111/Theatre/The-Chairs
Booking Until: 2nd May 2014