Old Fitz Theatre, September 8


They smear their make-up on before our eyes: smudged white and garish red, making faces that might have delighted in the guillotine during the French Revolution, hooting when another head plopped into the basket. Then they pull on the ragged clothes that constitute their finery, contrasting with the asylum-like scrubs in which we first find them: him mopping and her fussing. With their faces and finery in place, they’re ready to receive their guests.

Eugene Ionesco’s 1951 play just names them Old Man and Old Woman, although the Old Man does call his wife of 75 years Semiramis, a fog-thickening reference to the mythological Assyrian queen. Ionesco wrote it just after Beckett penned Waiting for Godot, but The Chairs beat Godot to the stage, and thereby helped spawn the retrospectively termed “theatre of the absurd”.

Paul Capsis and iOTA. Photos: Phil Erbacher.

It’s seldom performed, and yet Gale Edwards’ gripping iteration for Red Line Productions fizzes with immediacy. It is still a brave piece, too – and requires bravery from the performers, for beneath the daub of white and red they must invent the characters more than in most plays.

If boldness is required, who better than iOTA as Old Man and Paul Capsis as Old Woman? These two can be zany grotesques or bleed with humanity; can be Punch and Judy puppets, vaudeville comics, homespun philosophers and even weird precursors of George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, all at once.

Edwards’ chucked out Ionesco’s elaborate staging directions, instead having designer Brian Thompson give us just a round red podium, like a circus ring, with the chairs jumbled to either side. As the invisible guests arrive, the Old Woman sets up the chairs on the podium, ready for the lecture the Old Man has devised that will explain all. Except that he won’t deliver it. Even though she hails him as having been capable of becoming a maestro, a doctor or chess grandmaster, he’s not up to delivering his own thesis, and so they await the Orator.

Capsis and iOTA are compelling, funny and startlingly eccentric, with heartbreak an optional extra, as when he imagines their flesh “rotting together” when they die. It’s not a truly great play, but The Chairs will never shed its fascination, and I can’t imagine it being done better than this. Dare to see it.

Until October 15.