‘The world is growing crazy’: The classic play showing current anxieties

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Seventy years after Eugene Ionesco wrote The Chairs, director Gale Edwards and performers Paul Capsis and iOTA have found the essence of contemporary trauma in its comic-tragic absurdity.

The late Romanian-French playwright’s one-act play was first produced in 1952 as the world was still reeling from the collective blunt force of World War II and the clash of ideological absolutes. “It’s so relevant and so poignant now,” says Edwards.

iOTA, Paul Capsis and director Gale Edwards reunite for The Chairs, after working on The Rocky Horror Show in 2008.Credit: Janie Barrett

While this new production avoids adding contemporary references, Edwards feels the play resonates with current issues such as collective trauma over global warming, rising sea levels and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Rehearsing at the Old Fitz Theatre in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo, Edwards reflects: “After four years of Trump, and lack of faith in governments, and the crisis in leadership in the world, I don’t know about you, but I look around me and go: I can’t deal with any of this; I live in a madhouse.”

In the play, Capsis metamorphoses into an old woman named Semiramis, after a legendary Assyrian queen, while iOTA sheds his shyness to become an unnamed old man who is both a little crying boy and a fearsome ogre who demands to be obeyed. Together, the old man and the old woman have spent 75 years in a kind of lockdown.

They speak in repetitive banalities and constantly contradict one another – they may or may not have a son – while they await a magisterial emperor in a room that rapidly fills with distinguished visitors who are invisible to the audience and all need somewhere to sit.

“You’ve got to be fearless and incredibly brave if you’re going to direct or perform in this play,” Edwards says. “There’s no point doing a safe version of The Chairs. It’s dynamic, it’s challenging.”

Edwards last directed iOTA, real name Sean Hape, and Capsis in The Rocky Horror Show in 2008, and was keen to do so again.

“These two [always] do incredibly brave performances. They’re prepared to transform on a dime, because one moment these characters, like with dementia patients, are talking about one thing, then suddenly something else.”

Capsis notes as performers both he and iOTA inhabit the same world, each melding theatre, cabaret and music, although The Chairs does not require either of them to sing.

Paul Capsis in Rapture at Sydney Festival.Credit: Bianca De Marchi

The pair worked together as recently as 2021 in the Sydney Festival song cycle Rapture. “The energy of how we work, I’m just in awe,” he says.

“So am I,” says iOTA. “We’re on opposite sides of the street, but in the same neighbourhood.”

“We’re the Grace Slick and the Janis Joplin of the theatre world,” adds Capsis.

The Chairs is a classic of absurdist theatre.Credit: Jasmin Simmons

“Working with Gale on Rocky Horror was a hoot,” says iOTA. “I enjoyed her own special brand of madness. I think the same thing with Paul. We’re all a little bit crazy.”

Ionesco’s texts and philosophy meanwhile invite actors to go big in their performances: living in Paris during the Nazi occupation, and writing his plays in French after the war, the playwright came to believe the essence of theatre lay in “the enlargement of its effects”, making it “necessary to enlarge them even more, to underline them, to emphasise them as much as possible”.

Hungarian-born British academic and BBC broadcaster Martin Esslin coined the term “the theatre of the absurd” to mark the plays of Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Harold Pinter, all of whom grappled with the post-war crisis in meaning.

He argued that The Chairs is a “powerfully poetic play” whose power “does not lie in the banal words that are uttered but in the fact that they are spoken to an ever-growing number of empty chairs”.

Ionesco, in turn, defined his understanding of absurdism as “that which is devoid of purpose. Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless”.

Edwards says the “theatre of the absurd” grouped intellectuals, poets and playwrights who had witnessed the Holocaust and bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“[They asked] What are we here for? If human beings can do that to each other, can destroy each other, then who are we in terms of compassion? What’s the point, became the next question. There was a sense that everything is pointless, there is no hope, the individual is just lost in the mass.

“This particular play is about two survivors who are playing games with each other to pass the time and to stay alive. Because if you don’t play games, then you have to deal with silence, and then you have to think, and trauma comes into those gaps.”

Yet The Chairs manages to be funny and entertaining, because of its roots in vaudeville, she says, as well as the work of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and early Italian theatre or commedia dell’arte, which was popular throughout Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries.

“The nobility and madness of the human being is we keep trying to survive,” says Edwards. “Personally – and I think the three of us agree – these two characters [in The Chairs] are probably barking mad; driven mad by trauma, not intrinsically mad.”

Capsis has watched interviews with Ionesco where the playwright, who died in 1994, speaks very calmly in French, “but he’s very clear about all the horrors, and the trauma, of his life, and it comes out in his writing … in those days it was Nazism, it was communism. Nowadays it would be Trump, it would be Putin”.

“I think the world is growing crazy,” Edwards adds. “I plant my garden, I take my dogs for a walk, and I try to pretend that Putin is not invading Ukraine.

“But he is. He’s shooting civilians. How can we live in a world where that happens?”

The Chairs is at Old Fitz Theatre from September 5 to October 15.

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