There’s a lot of fussing about seats in “The Chairs,” the London revival of Eugene Ionesco’s 1952 absurdist landmark, but the true fuss is likely to take place at the box office once word spreads about Richard Briers’ performance. A co-production between the Royal Court and Simon McBurney’s Theatre de Complicite touring company, McBurney’s staging casts as radically new a light on the veteran English thesp as Ionesco did 45 years ago on the conventions of drama.
Even while audiences may readily absorb the imaginative leaps demanded by the writing, the leap made by the leading man is more immediately startling. There’s been something a little too cozy about Briers’ stage performances of late, whether partnering with Paul Eddington in David Storey’s “Home” or playing Lear or Vanya for Kenneth Branagh’s now-defunct Renaissance company. But as the 95-year-old Old Man, spouse for 75 years to 94-year-old Old Woman (Geraldine McEwan), Briers embodies the celebrated line of Ionesco’s existential kinsman Beckett that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
Gamely anticipating the hordes of (unseen) visitors who fill the sea of chairs onstage, Briers’ nonagenarian janitor is ripe for a party whose trick turns out to be on him. “Can’t we just be happy with the little we have?” he asks his wife, whom McEwan enthusiastically (sometimes overenthusiastically, really) presents as an exhausted rag doll. But the answer is clear from Briers’ baleful eyes: Pain drives the character’s antics.
The garrulous couple spends the play awaiting the Orator, who, unlike Beckett’s Godot, does arrive, even if he turns out to be mute. But his appearance cues the pair’s departure from a life spent mostly isolated in a turret of sorts, surrounded by water (sound designer Paul Arditti makes much of the lapping water that begins the evening). Their language is self-aggrandizing and grandiose, but their fear is very real. Like the vaudevillians of Beckett’s plays, they yearn to leave a mark.
The physical centerpiece, as it must be, is the onstage gathering of chairs for an assemblage exhaustively chatted up but never glimpsed. Doorbells ringing ever more loudly as boats are heard arriving through the water, the performers make a dizzying comic gavotte of a sequence that almost equals the night raid in the National’s “Chips With Everything” as London’s leading extended display of stage business.
McBurney gets the frenzy and ferocity of such moments in a play aptly characterized as “a tragic farce.” But one wonders what the Court’s own Stephen Daldry might have done with a play that can sustain an even wilder staging than McBurney and his designers, the Brothers Quay, allow (the set machinations at the end don’t deliver the intended knockout). What’s left is a vision of two troupers played by troupers whose appetite for the theater seems happily ageless.