Thursday, December 11, 2008

English-er and English-er

GLEAMS THEATRE recently ended its fifth year of theatre production with five performances of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano at Geordie Space in November.
After the Second World War, Eugene Ionesco, who was living in France at the time, began studying English and found the experience so unsettling, he wrote THE BALD SOPRANO.
Perhaps the playwright felt lost without his native Roumanian and acquired French as post-war Europe lay in post-traumatic shock. The play – what there is of it – builds on the peculiarity of English life, English fires, English food, English chairs, English socks, English men, English women and everything English, in a world growing Englisher day by day.
In GLEAMS’ adaptation, Director Constantin Sokolov’s clever staging plays with audience fear of being trapped inside a theatre with a cast of unknown actors all behaving unpredictably. There is an introductory sequence that includes a haunting monologue from another Ionesco play, THE CHAIRS, followed by a sequence in which the actors turn to one another and announce there will not be a play because the theatre is empty.
Actor-ushers order the audience to get up and move to the other side of the theatre. Without a word, exchanging glances, the ticket-holders allow themselves to be reseated. Do these young actors know what they're doing? Is this a play? or something else? Should we leave now to avoid further embarrassment?
After these two false starts, The Bald Soprano opens on a scene in London. A couple, seated in chairs. The husband is doing a crossword puzzle. The wife is darning socks. Seated awkwardly in a living room composed of empty theatre seats, this pair of happily married morons utter autistic, even catatonic, phrasebook dialogue that might be a painful commentary on modern life.
Their accents are also painfully British, although their cellphones keep ringing, forcing the actors to switch to their real-life’ Canadian personas. These improvised interruptions help emphasize the awkwardness and absurdity of the situation on stage.
Inevitably, though, the wooden English characters and their absurd English dialogue become oddly comprehensible. By Act Two we're almost interested in their 'story' -- which goes to show how difficult it is to maintain art in a state of absurdity. Despite our best efforts, meaning creeps into everything. Time and habit create the illusion of familiarity and repetition builds suspense, even with Big Ben chiming 17 times, whenever it pleases. Characters who move like mechanical toys, before long seem almost alive and the audience almost cares what will happen next. Somewhere between tension and total boredom, we await the grand finale of nonsensical lines shouted into space by maniacal robots on amphetamines.
Despite one or two gimmicks too many, GLEAMS’ Bald Soprano was strangely satisfying. Rather than presenting an annoying challenge, this production seemed almost audience friendly and reassuring: a way to relax and let go and indulge in a little controlled insanity after you’ve been trapped for too long inside the real, out-of-control kind.
Could it be because, since 2001, we've been living in wartime? Or a simulation of wartime? In the beginning, wasn't Theatre of the Absurd a response to war and the psychosis it unleashes in the corners of human life?
I can see Theatre of the Absurd having a comeback in these times of cuts to the arts. And that might mean that companies like GLEAMS, which basically operate out of a suitcase, have a role to play in bringing theatre back to fundamentals: scripts and acting.