Extant, the UKs only theatre company of visually impaired professionals has been touring with a production of Ionescu's classic Absurdist drama, The Chairs. Colin Hambrook saw the show at the Albany, Deptford
Extant Theatre have become synonymous with the creative exploration of access to the performing arts for visually impaired people. For some years they have been at the centre of a debate about how to successfully integrate audio-description into theatre as part of a shared aesthetic, as opposed to giving targeted access via headsets to individual visually-impaired audience members.
A massive amount of imaginative and creative energy has gone into Extant’s production of The Chairs – not least through providing a creative description, which enhances the theatrical experience for everyone.
Andrea Carr's beautiful set design has elements of the interior of Jules Verne's The Nautilus combined with some of the best Outsider art using recycled materials. It contains textures from discarded objects mirroring the sense of fragmentation that sits at the heart of Martin Crimp's 1997 celebrated translation of the script.
Mounted within the circular stage of the Albany Theatre, the congruity of the set added to the magic of the staging of the play, conveys an impression of being seated within something resembling a space ship. In the opening sequence the Old Man (John Wilson Goddard) and his wife Semiramis (Heather Gilmore) introduce themselves. She looks out through a round fish-eye window, whilst he leans out peering at the waters and the night sky that surrounds them. She admonishes him to draw back inside: "Remember what happened to Henry VII!" "I'm sick to death of Tudor history", he responds, establishing the contrary nature of their relationship.
We soon learn that the couple have been together for 75 years. They exist within an isolated universe, busy whiling away the time telling each other stories about their lives. Gilmore inhabits her role brilliantly with moments of comic genius, bringing a childlike enthusiasm to her role and a sing-song quality to the poetry within the script, with its references to things such as 'spin doctors and helicopters', 'Pope Paul and the popular press.'
The old man introduces invisible characters who ring at their fictional door bells. He has been promising to deliver a message that will save the world. And, apparently the auspicious Orator, due to arrive at any moment, has the task of relaying the old man’s discovery.
The old woman brings an increasing number of chairs, which she places in rows centre-stage, to seat a series of invisible audience members who have come to hear the Orator. As the dialogues with this invisible characters unfold, so does the growing sense of conflict in what is real and what is not real.
Because much of the play is about what can and cannot be seen or understood, both symbolically and practically, in many respects the sense of the Absurd at the heart of The Chairs is enhanced by employing a cast of blind and visually impaired actors. This is particularly successful with the integration of description by allowing the characters to express their movement on stage. Pre-recordings of the characters literally, speaking their actions are played when those actions are of dramatic import. There were moments when the recordings were out of sync, but as a way of using sound to enhance a theatrical experience for everyone, the device had the effect of mimicking the voices of the characters' inner conscience.
As such it enhanced the sense of the ridiculous, beautifully. So, for example, as Semiramis attempts to console the Old Man's distress at not having made anything of his life, she takes the back of his hand and tenderly wipes the tears from his eyes. The echoey and slightly distorted quality of the sound of the recording of her describing these movements emphasizes her mixed emotions about her relationship with him.
Ionescu's The Chairs is a tour de force of poetic language with its panoply of fragmented stories. Godard-Wilson relaying his characters many monologues and leading bits within the dialogue, portrays the Old Man's choleric nature, admirably. However it is the alive humour within Gilmore's performance that makes the show compelling.
This was an enormously ambitious staging of The Chairs, although overall, the performance was somewhat frayed at the edges. With only 3 dates in Wolverhampton and 4 dates in Deptford, it felt like there was a need for more time to embed what Extant were wanting to achieve. I wasn’t sure, for example, given the ending of the play, whether the setting of the play within a building that mirrors a contemporary research centre, there is an intention to make the audience aware of the current debate around assisted suicide?
I for one would look forward to seeing the performance again and hope that Extant can find many more venues to take them on.