Auckland Festival, Musgrove Studio
March 12-28 | Reviewed by Renee Liang (contains spoilers)

A MAN sits slumped in a chair, his face hidden from the audience. Around him two ramshackle cottages are on the brink of collapse. A jumble of old chairs is glimpsed backstage and transparent blue netting seems to shroud the whole scene.

This is how Ionesco’s classic play, The Chairs (Les Chaises), opens. First written and performed in 1952, this new Auckland production stays true to the vision of a timeless, isolated place where the characters are both nobody and everybody and where it is never clear what exactly is happening. Although this uncertainty can get exhausting at times there is also a delight in the absurdity of the whole situation. The two main characters – known only as Man and Woman – are objects of ridicule and sometimes derision, but watching them sometimes brings on uncomfortable realisations about oneself.

The Man and Woman live in some sort of post-apocalyptic world where they have apparently spent years talking only to each other. As such, their speech has deteriorated into a kind of nonsense-speak, full of dead ends and lost impressions. The Man regrets spending his life doing mundane jobs. He is berated by the Woman who feels he missed too many opportunities. The Man announces his grand scheme to amend for never having amounted to much – he has discovered the theory underlying the meaning of life and invited ‘everyone’ (in the world?) to hear him.

The pair erupt into a frenzy of preparation: welcoming their invisible (and perhaps nonexistent) guests, they fill the stage with chairs and then swim ecstatically among, over and around them. The Man explains that (despite his clearly pressured speech) he “does not have the skills” to deliver his important lecture and so he has engaged the services of an Orator.

Lawrence and Ionda have moments of synergy as the Man and the Woman, but overall I found their partnership strangely jarring. This could have been intentional, though. Lawrence has a powerful voice and matching physical presence; Ionda in contrast is light and her grasp on characterisation slips occasionally. I went on a night when the play was acted in English. I found it puzzling that both actors delivered the play in what sounded like eastern European (Romanian?) accents; was it some sort of nod to Ionescu’s Romanian-French heritage? The accents added to the sense of cultural dislocation (good) but made the long, complicated ramblings of the script even more difficult to follow (bad); I found myself dropping out occasionally.

Those members of the audience who did persevere were rewarded with an increasingly absurd mise en scene. The Man and the Woman engage in increasingly frenetic actions: opening and closing doors, talking faster and faster, making grand claims. This heralds the arrival of the Orator (Snoad), whose appearance is one of the surprises of the play. In a particularly twisted interpretation, Snoad’s Orator is a beaming doppelganger of Mrs Santa Claus who resembles a wind-up toy in both movement and speech. On her arrival the Man and the Woman pronounce that their work is done, and leap in synchrony to their deaths from the windows. The Orator then completes the irony by delivering the theory in a series of babyish squeaks and raspberries.

The intimate space of the Musgrove Theatre adds to the feeling of claustrophobia. Indeed, the chairs of the audience are close enough to become continuous with the chairs on the stage. The low production values were surprising given this is associated with (but not a work produced specifically for) the Auckland Festival – it seems to fit more within the Fringe. But in terms of the elements of risk (performing the play in different languages in alternate nights), exploration and innovation, it fitted in either Festival perfectly.

This is a bewildering play that leaves one pondering its meaning for days afterwards. Ultimately it’s a depressing conclusion about the futility of life and the pointlessness of trying to find any meaning. I’m not sure if that’s what Ionescu meant, or if he intended each audience member to go away with a different meaning (and I’m normally such a happy person). But if you enjoy word mazes, being challenged or pushed out of your comfort zone, then maybe you’ll enjoy this play.