Review: The Chairs, Almeida Theatre ★★★★☆

In Omar Elerian’s entertaining adaption of Eugène Ionesco’s The Chairs, Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter play the elderly husband and wife (as they are in real life) who are preparing for a party to which they have invited all the ‘movers and shakers’ left following an undescribed apocalyptic event. Even the Leavers, the Remainers, the Remoaners are invited in Elerian’s translation. They have been invited to hear a Speaker who will deliver a message on behalf of the Old Man detailing what he has discovered. But the guests are invisible and each must be provided with a chair.

Elerian overlays this with a new meta-storyline, opening the play with the curtain down and a tape recorder strung from the roof that is ‘accidentally’ broadcasting a conversation between Magni, Hunter and the stage manager (Toby Sedgwick) as Magni refuses to perform in the ‘difficult play’. ‘Where is the message?’ he asks, though the message will be explained by the play’s ending. Eventually, he is cajoled on stage. It is a bright start.

Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter. Photo: Helen Murray.

This storyline allows Elerian to take Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd to even more absurd places with the help of Magni and Hunter who prove to be a tremendous physical comedy double-act. There is more of a hint of Beckett meeting The Play That Goes Wrong. As the duo carry an invisible table, they run in opposite directions to answer the door as the doorbell rings – each still carrying their end of the table. An invisible cup becomes a strange object of interest to Magni’s character when its presence is usurped by a physical cup presented by the stage manager.

Hunter, who recently played all three witches in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth and is set to play King Lear at the Globe Theatre later this year, appears both wizened and childlike, twisting and contorting herself. Magni is full of beguiling charm as he flirts with the unseen guests, his expressive face alive in every moment. They add subtlety where there could have been crudeness in the absurd.

Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter. Photo: Helen Murray.

The set by Cécile Trémolières and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen is framed by luxurious curtains adding a feeling of warmth that is accentuated by Jackie Shemesh’s lighting. However the placement of a large curtain downstage left, though not impacting the action, has the effect of making the action feel pushed towards one side at times. The revolve is central to the sense of panic as the Old Man and Old Woman try to accommodate their multitude of unseen guests.

It is difficult to know where the truth lies in Ionesco’s play. There are conflicting stories about a son who may or may not have existed and parents who may or may not have been cared for. Truths and alternative truths, Sedgwick’s character may suggest. And he does make suggestions. Elerian’s change to the ending gives the voiceless Speaker his voice, in a sense, allowing Sedgwick’s character to explain the play’s message.

Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter. Photo: Helen Murray.

With the Old Man and the Old Woman gone, explaining Ionesco’s meaning after the fact seems to defeat the purpose of what has gone before – contradicting it, even. Given the audience knows the action has finished, Sedgwick’s character’s speech becomes something of a meandering ramble that kills the pace of the conclusion. However, the final image of The Speaker searching for his words, caught in Shemesh’s lighting, is striking.

The Chairs is at the Almeida Theatre until 5 March