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‘The Chairs’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Chairs, Almeida Theatre, 2022
Photo by Helen Murray

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Kathryn Hunter is superb in Omar Elerian’s wilfully mischievous reworking of the classic Ionesco farce

Eugene Ionesco’s 1952 comedy ‘The Chairs’ is one of those classic absurdist European texts that everyone feels like they probably ought to know, but very few people have actually seen a production of.

Until now! 

A few years back, director Omar Elerian scored a bona-fide West End hit with his production of Arinzé Kene’s metatheatrical shaggy dog story ‘Misty’, and it’s really not hard to guess what might have drawn him to ‘The Chairs’, which he reframes from a ‘tragic farce’ to… a metatheatrical shaggy dog story.

The show begins with the curtain down, and a (supposedly) accidentally flipped tannoy switch leaving us privy to a backstage row, as Marcello Magni’s Old Man declares he is absolutely not going out on stage, while Elerian and Magni’s co-stars Kathryn Hunter and Toby Sedgwick try to talk him round. It is very sillly and very funny and sets the tone for Elerian’s production, which would seem to largely steer clear of the more obvious political subtext of Ionesco’s farce (until it kicks the hornets nest a bit at the very end), and instead enjoys revelling luxuriously in the bizarre comedy of it all.

As you’d hope, the play features chairs, and lots of them

To this end he is massively aided by his cast, in particular the extraordinary Hunter, who plays the Old Woman, wife to the Old Man’s. Married for 75 years and living in a world in which London has apparently been destroyed, they have suddenly decided to invite the whole of society around to their in order to tell them… something. 

As you’d hope, the play features chairs, and lots of them. They’re used to represent the guests, in lieu of additional actors. In what looks like a crumbling music hall, at the beginning the couple are simply talking to the spaces where people should be sitting; by the end they’re piling a roaring torrent of new seating on stage to accommodate the throng, tossing chairs around with balletic abandon, while other seating receptacles are seemingly moving themselves across the now spinning stage. It’s an elaborate and entrancing spectacle, rendered beautifully by designers Cécile Trémoliéres and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen.

Elerian has given the wordplay-heavy French text a complete overhaul in his chatty, funny, largely plain English translation, which features flights of fanciful verbal gymnastics but is largely kept enjoyably deadpan and grounded. 

Recently given a profile boost via her memorable term as all three of the witches in Joel Coen’s ‘Macbeth’, cult fave Hunter is wonderful in an orange wig and oversize dress, her eyes wide with a truly remarkable mix of childish innocence and withering contempt as she attempts to chivvy along her husband. Her physicality is playful rather than ostentatiously weird, but still remarkable – at one point she spins her arms and they move like windmills, seemingly not even connected to her body.

Magni’s Old Man is straighter, but entertaining, a janitor with slightly Basil Fawlty-like delusions of grandeur who has decided to throw this meeting for… whatever reason. The pair go through all the emotions, from bickering to flirting with their guests to wild, euphoric exultation. The overall impression is of a surreal kids’ party, with the two the strange overgrown children at the heart of a bafflingly elaborate party game.

There’s a wildcard here, which is performer Toby Sedgwick, who has been thrown in as a sort of additional subversive element. For most of ‘The Chairs’ he plays the role of dopey stagehand who keeps bumbling into the action, or exposing some (deliberate) shoddiness in Elerian’s directing (at one point he runs around in the same wig as Hunter, obviously intended to serve as a body double for her, but lumbering around at twice her size).

The play is famously intended to end with a Speaker finally turning up and then having nothing to say. Instead Elerian’s concludes with Sedgwick hashing up his cue to come on, and then launching into an awkward, uncomfortably long monologue in which he stiffly tries to summarise the play’s intended themes, talking is through how things are supposed to end and why, but by the act of telling us ensuring the production ends in the exact opposite way it's meant to.

It’s possible Elerian’s take on ‘The Chairs’ constitutes a scathingly brilliant takedown of late capitalism that I missed because I was too busy laughing at Kathryn Hunter’s funny faces. But I left with the impression of a largely apolitical, bathetic, and inventively mischievous take the little-seen classic, one that I suspect will infuriate those looking for a more literal take on Ionesco’s text. But I had a blast: ‘The Chairs’ is funny, weird and wilfully awkward, and I think a director is left with the choice of treating it like a ‘50s museum piece, or updating frantically. And whether or not you think he made the right choice, any opportunity to see Hunter do her thing is always a treat.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£10-£48.50. Runs 1hr 45min
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