THE BALD SOPRANO
24/05/2019 - 01/06/2019
Classic absurdist comedy – contains sexual references
Award-winning Dunedin theatre company Arcade presents Eugène Ionesco absurdist anti-play The Bald Soprano.
Join the Smiths and the Martins for a dinner party where nothing is quite what it seems. The clock is broken, no one can remember who anyone is and why exactly has the fire captain turned up anyway?
The Bald Soprano holds the world record for the longest continuous staging in the same theatre, having played at the Théâtre de la Huchette since 1957. Ionesco’s classic “anti-play” is an assault upon convention and a celebration of chaos as the Smiths and Martin rally against the seemingly inevitable pointlessness of it all!
82 Bond Street, Dunedin
24 May – 1 June 2019
(no show on Monday 27th May)
By special arrangement with Samuel French Inc. and New Zealand Play Bureau Ltd.
Arcade’s 2019 season is supported in part by the Dunedin City Council’s professional theatre fund.
Mr Smith: Trubie-Dylan Smith
Mrs Smith: Abby Howells
Mr Martin: Alex Martyn
Mrs Martin: Cat Wright
Maid: Rebecca Thompson
Fire Captain: Sofian Scott
Stage Manager/Ass. Producer: Amy Wright
FOH Manager: Beth Waite
Producer: Kate Schrader
Design and Publicity Angus McBryde
Lighting Design: Anna van den Bosch
Set Design: Simon Anderson
Costume Design: Ross Heath
Director: Alex Wilson
1 hr 20 min, no interval
Delectable hilarity of linguistic horror
Review by Terry MacTavish 26th May 2019
By rights this seminal absurdist play, exposing the inadequacy of language, the ludicrous nature of our efforts at communication, the futility of our attempts to connect, and apparent meaninglessness of the universe should leave us, if not in the depths of despair, at least gloomily pondering the pointlessness of it all and possibly heading for a stiff drink. Instead, the audience radiates joy, laughs merrily throughout and at the end appears not only happy but positively smug. Arcade has given us a totally delightful production of the play by Eugene Ionesco that polarised critics and audiences when first staged in the 1950s.
It is astonishing now to see what vicious controversy he aroused by his own effort to communicate in a new way, eschewing the social realism popular at the time. Martin Esslin, in his classic The Theatre of the Absurd, feels obliged to defend him thus: “Ionesco is by no means merely the author of hilarious nonsense plays … but a serious artist dedicated to the arduous exploration of the realities of the human situation.” Fortunately nothing about this production appears arduous.
The playwright was born in Romania but grew up in Paris with French as his first language. Setting himself to learn English, he was appalled but fascinated by the absurdity of the primers with their foolish clichés and truisms – there are seven days in a week, the floor is down, the ceiling is up – followed by the introduction in the text of an English family, the Smiths, who astoundingly spend all their time solemnly telling each other bland facts they already know. With the arrival of their friends, the equally boring Martins, a cast is born.
Ionesco’s first audience of friends surprised him by finding his avant-garde play funny, when he considered he had written a very serious piece on the tragedy of language. The Arcade Theatre Company under Alex Wilson has brought all the humour to the fore, giving the most accessible interpretation I have seen of The Bald Soprano. (The title came from a lucky slip of the tongue during rehearsal for the original production.)
While the loss of the Fortune has been felt in Dunedin, a benefit has been that the little companies with smaller venues and smaller overheads have mounted plays too box-office risky for the Fortune mainstage. The venues have been imaginative, but some less successful (and chilly!) than others, and producer Kate Schrader has done well to find Arcade this large airy space in the heritage area, up a flight of beautiful wide wooden stairs that are exploited for entrances and exits.
The intriguing set designed by Simon Anderson is not realistic as Ionesco originally planned, but much more flexible and exciting. The audience is seated in traverse, facing a raft-like platform floating between the halves of the room, one side of the audience exposed to pleasant middle class art reproductions suspended from the rafters, while the other side sees that the backs of the pictures are in fact mirrors. Ross Heath has costumed the cast in trim black and white which complements the stylised effect created by the set.
Lighting a traverse stage can be a real challenge, if the audience is not to be blinded, but even without theatrical amenities Anna van den Bosch has contrived a subtle lighting design that is attractive and also easy on the eyes. As the action accelerates, the lights flicker and the pictures spin wildly, taking on a life of their own and I recall that Ionesco asserted the properties should join in the action, the décor be animated, the symbols made concrete.
Director Alex Wilson has wisely stayed true to the original production’s conclusion that the play only works if the actors treat it absolutely seriously. The cast are totally secure in their roles and perfectly at ease with each other; clearly a group that has worked together and played together over many years, acquiring professionalism without losing a youthful exuberance. All, especially the two couples, handle both the poetic and the nightmarish qualities of the language with aplomb.
The first couple, the Smiths, sit waiting for guests who appear to be late, four hours late in fact, for dinner. Abruptly Abby Howells as Mrs Smith launches into a two page monologue in supremely tedious detail on the supper they have eaten. Quite a challenge for an actor but with impeccable comic timing Howells succeeds in transforming the deadly dull to hilarious. Traverse seating allows us to enjoy the mirth of the opposing side of the audience and the patrons are clearly enthralled.
Finally her husband puts down his paper and the conversation turns to a family who are somewhat difficult to discuss as they are, each and every one, named Bobby Watson. Trubie-Dylan Smith is a dynamic, very physical actor whose portrayal of the belligerent Mr Smith, though close to caricature, is always under control. His delivery is thrilling – unexpectedly menacing, actually – and I am quite mesmerised by the way he can move his lips like a groper (the fish!).
The married guests arrive, amusingly played by Alex Martyn, with the most marvellously manic fixed grin beneath his moustache, and Catherine Wright, gloriously elongated in a tight black dress. Left to themselves, the Martins embark on a ridiculous quest to work out whether they have met before, wending their way through amazing ‘coincidences’ that lead to a stunningly ludicrous climax. The Smiths return and the conversation again revolves around mind-numbingly boring banalities and clichés.
In trying to puzzle out a translation for the French ‘emmerde’ that Ionesco employs, it occurs to me that our expression ‘bored shitless’ may be closest to Ionesco’s contention that extreme banality can lead one to break through the boredom barrier to a state akin to ecstasy – having thus rid oneself of the detritus of life. ‘Bored stiff’, however, suggests another, somewhat similar physical interpretation. Ionesco does tend to leave one pondering such absurdities.
Some excitement is provided by the eruption into the scene of two new characters. The Smiths’ maid, Mary, is enacted with impressive energy, especially in the fiery poem, by Rebecca Thompson. Stalwart Sofian Scott plays a random Fire Captain who has been loitering outside, hopeful of finding a fire to put out, and who has a curious past connection to Mary. Director Wilson provides the pair with a great opportunity for some stylised passion that charms the audience.
The manic climax to all this nonsense is simply splendid, the pace and intensity and sheer absurdity of the language rising to a crescendo, admirably co-ordinated by Wilson. Realism is utterly abandoned and we have exactly what Ionesco wanted: “A theatre of violence – violently comic, violently dramatic.”
Like the rest of the buzzing audience, I am enchanted that Arcade has given us this entertaining production of Ionesco’s brilliant anti-play. It may be that the author would feel we have enjoyed it too much, that we should have been made to reflect with horror, as he put it, on the way society has levelled individualism; the way we have become automatons and can no longer talk because we can no longer think, can no longer think because we can no longer be moved, can no longer feel passions.
Do we still need that lesson? Have we lost passion? The Bald Soprano opens on the day of the second Protest for Climate Action, with our young people stopping traffic by lying on the road in a neat piece of street theatre, shouting “Wake Up!” at the society that they hold responsible for the threat to their environment. And here is Arcade, a young theatre company with the talent and courage to follow their passion.
They have made the bold decision to double the usual length of the season for this production and it is so very good that tonight’s full house should be the start of a sell-out season. The focus on the delectable hilarity of The Bald Soprano seems just right.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer