Ionesco’s work finds the absurd in the mundane and highlights it. This dinner party with no dinner (but generous and replenished helpings of wine) certainly fit the bill. As a newcomer to his work – and a non-French speaker – I was nervous I wouldn’t get enough out of my night to enjoy it, but my worries were unfounded. The French is translated cleverly through the serving staff (the maid and the Butler) and when not in their primary characters through the dinner party guests, but I was assured by my bilingual companion that this repetition did not detract from the action, more adding to the sense of absurdity the plays aim to ignite.
The action consists of extracts from Ionesco’s most famous works interspersed with interviews with the playwright himself played by Sean Rees (who also doubles up as Mr Smith). All the cast were superb, but particular mention should go to Jorge Laguardia as the Butler and Spanish Fire Chief, his was the highest comedy moment of the night and he dominated a difficult space well. Throughout the play, not quite enough was done with the table at the heart of the action. I would have liked to have seen it used more for the physical comedy that played out on the sides of the action. As the absurdity of the dinner scenes played out the Smiths being at opposite ends of the table from either each other or the Martins worked to highlight the absurdities of bourgeois life at the heart of the play. But while there were no elbows on the table and nor was there dancing or leaping on there either.
The staging worked to put the audience at the heart of the play, but my only real quibble was that the play fell somewhere between immersive and traditional theatre and so as a fervent advocate of immersive theatre, I found this not quite interactive enough for my liking. But this is a very minor split-hair that didn’t mar an extremely enjoyable experience. If – like me – you’re new to Ionesco, or to absurdist theatre as a whole, this was a sublime taster.
It may be that as Ionesco himself argued, this was just Guignol – a puppet show designed to amuse. But theatre cannot be separated from the circumstances in which it is staged. In putting on a French commentary about English suburban behaviours, the producers seemed to be making a broader point about the absurdities inherent in the manners we have until now taken for granted. Perhaps it may be that it is only in exaggerated absurdity that we see the truth of who we are.