Ionesco x2: The Les­son and The Chairs

Be to­tally gripped by Ionesco x2: The Les­son And The Chairs.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By Ter­ence Toh startwo@thes­tar.com.my

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.

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