The latest production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs at La Mama Theatre in Carlton, directed by Jenny Kemp, was my first encounter with the play and brought me into an unexpected state of childlike vulnerability and delicacy. What begins as a playful, naturalistic dialogue between an old couple evolves into a touching revelation of our hidden fears, desires, insecurities and pleasures.
The show is about the arrival of guests to their humble home. Countless prestigious guests, whose presence is imagined, or invisible like ghosts, demarcated only by empty chairs similar to the ones we are sitting in as we watch. As the night progresses, we are held in anticipation of the arrival of the Orator, who will speak on behalf of the man (Robert Meldrum) and deliver his great message to the world. What begins as a simple gathering gains momentum until the night is built up as a singular act of existential catharsis, the ultimate passing on of the infinite complexities of this lonely old man before he dies and his secrets are lost from the world. The momentum simply does not stop building; the Orator’s arrival can only represent the cosmic transcendence of our souls from the innocent and pure children that we are into the eternal abyss.
I think the (perhaps unattainable) ideal performance of this play might simultaneously transport the audience on this journey, at the same time as showing that the journey is absurd, hilarious, and (inasmuch as it speaks to self-indulgence, narcissism and lapdog servitude to the imperialist State) maybe even reprehensible. And there were indeed points where I was laughing and crying at the same time.
I suspect, however, that the play is now too entrenched in its time period to make this entirely possible, at least for someone as young as me. The economic system in which the characters live is for many of us long gone. Their lives are poor and full of regret, loneliness and dire irrelevance. Material pleasures are not for them, whether it’s for ascetic reasons or because they lived in a time of poverty and scarcity. The internet does not exist yet. And the internet brings us a whole new existential kettle of fish, even while making some of the old concerns less relevant.
Moreover, the pathetic characterisation of Semiramus (Jillian Murray) was almost foreign, the kind we don’t see too often except maybe in our conservative grandmothers. It was sad to see a woman whose existence was so framed by patriarchal logic, albeit with a brief and glorious salve in a scene where she expresses untamed sexual desire for another man. In my mind, patriarchal domination was parallel to themes of imperial, totalitarian and capitalist domination that surfaced in the play, even if it was placed off-centre by sidelining Semiramus against the lofty existential ambitions of the man.
After looking forward to my first encounter with the ‘great playwright’ Ionesco (led by a very well-esteemed Melbourne director no less), the work spoke with such humility and pathos to undermine this strange interest in greatness. In the little sacred space of La Mama, I had a historically insignificant and deeply special experience.