Ionesco x2: The Lesson and The Chairs
Be totally gripped by Ionesco x2: The Lesson And The Chairs.
DO you complain that most forms of entertainment nowadays are too clichéd and formulaic? Are you bothered that movies and television nowadays have become stale and much too predictable, with little that shocks or surprises you anymore?
If you do, then perhaps French and Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco is who you’re looking for: his plays are anything but predictable. They open slowly, lulling the audience with seemingly normal characters in normal situations who gradually go down unexpected pathways often tinged with passion and conflict, and often end with a violent climax that takes one by surprise.
Watching an Ionesco play can be quite an experience, as seen at Ionesco x2: The Lesson And The Chairs, currently on at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) in Sentul. The double bill of the classic works, newly interpreted for a modern Malaysian audience, was captivating, mostly due to powerful acting and simple yet intimate staging.
Ionesco is hailed as one of the foremost playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd, which is devoted to examining the irra- tionality of understanding the often chaotic and destructive forces behind human nature.
These themes are often reflected in the structure of his plays, which reject conventional storylines, and use cyclical repetition and mechanical characters who speak in non sequiturs.
While the absurd nature of Ionesco’s plays can often be confusing and off-putting, particularly to those new to theatre, they have often been described as compelling – they are profound despite not making much sense.
Ionesco x2 effectively captured this, opening with a strong performance of The Lesson, directed by Christopher Ling and featuring Payal Vashist, Nabil Zakaria and Alex Chua. The play centred upon a young pupil who visits a professor, eager to be educated, only for things to end in tragedy as both characters become increasingly frustrated, pushing each other till breaking point with their respective quirks.
One of the more unique points of this production was the gender-flip in its casting – male characters were portrayed by female actors, and vice-versa.
This unconventional approach ultimately paid off, due to impassioned performances: while Chua and Zakaria deliver decent, if somewhat wooden performances as the butler Hector and The Pupil, respectively, Vashist shone as the Professor. Her performance was incredibly captivating, serving as a fine showcase for her versatility as she effectively and naturally portrayed excited enthusiasm, frustration, murderous rage, repressed lust and, finally, terrified guilt as the play progressed.
The Chairs, which came on after a brief intermission, was also delightful. Directed by Kelvin Wong, and featuring Uihua Cheah, Alexis Wong and Freddy Tan, it centred on an elderly couple who decide one day to conduct an educational lecture, inviting some unusual guests – non-existent ones.
The invisible guests do not stop them from trying to be good hosts as they cajole, chat up, bicker with and even make love to them. Things come to a head, however, with an unexpected arrival, which proves far too much for the couple to bear.
As the play came to a close, the sound of audience cheering could be heard over a stage filled with empty chairs, resulting in an unsettling feeling of absence and loss.
The play was slightly adapted for a Malaysian setting, with the characters dressed in Chinese attire and making reference to Beijing. Cheah did well as the Old Man, while Tan managed to delight despite his smaller, silent role.
The audience’s favourite for the night, however, was clearly Wong, who excelled as Semiramis, the Old Woman. Infusing her character with just the right touch of humour and pathos, Wong’s performance, from her croaky voice to her frazzled mannerisms, was incredibly gripping.
The Chairs, however, was not as satisfying as The Lesson, if only because it was somewhat tedious towards the end, particularly with the draggy scene of the Emperor’s “appearance”.
While entertaining, the plays may leave you scratching your head, and wondering, “What was that all about?” If one squints closely, one may find meaning in them. Perhaps The Lesson is a satire on contemporary education, or on the lack of reason in conformity. Perhaps The Chairs is a discourse on the futility of communication, or a dark examination of delusions.
But that may be stretching things too far. Ionesco’s plays are a celebration of the absurd, after all, and perhaps what we can all take away from these two is this: just like life itself, things don’t always have to make sense, and there is little point in trying to understand them.
Listen to what I’m saying: Payal Vashist (right) and Nabil Zakaria in TheLesson.
Have a seat: Alexis Wong and Uihua Cheah in TheChairs.