Buy one, get one free: each Night of the Absurd promises to fill your evening with two plays and more existential lines than you can wring your world-weary hands at. Prepare yourself for a double bill of Camus’ The Misunderstanding and Sartre’s No Exit: two plays which were proclaiming the meaningless of life before it was cool.
The first half is given over to The Misunderstanding – a euphemism if ever there was one. The set-up is a mother and daughter who make ends meet by running a guest house. Murdering their visitors for their money, of course. And then along comes the long-lost son in disguise… The tension is teeth-grindingly high, even when the conversation turns to tea. In fact, all the conversations are tense, so after the fifty-sixth semi-subconscious ultra-profound absurdist double entendre, the jokes get a bit old. The characters are great to watch as walking philosophical doctrines; but in terms of psychology, they feel more like a scrap-book than a story. There are flashes of depth though, and some of them deeply sickening, but that also means there’s plenty of “oh no they didn’t!” moments.
After a quick interval, it’s back to the instruments of mental torture. And not just for us – No Exit imagines a hell without the pokers and fat-sizzling fires. Nothing but a room kitted out with Second Empire furniture, a paper knife, a bell that doesn’t work, and a locked door. And three very desperate human beings who have just started eternity. Sounds cosy, but everything soon crumbles into a very sophisticated, very brutal, and yet uncannily everyday verbal brawl. Technically, this is one of those plays where you find yourself lost in trying to sum up ‘what it’s about’. But this is a world away from Waiting for Godot: it’s relentless, it’s edge-of-the-seat, and it will sink its claws into your brain.
The material is heavy, yet the sets are light; the cast have given themselves a real challenge. In the bleak plays there isn’t much to hide behind. With just a dab of make-up and some furniture, all the drama is in the words and the gestures. Acting is tough anyway when you’re trying to pretend to be someone else; and with the absurd, it’s more like pretending to be someone pretending to be someone else. Each twitch and every tone can make a difference. There’s the potential to seem eerily flat; but there’s the reward of being more fleshy than life itself. Pembroke, break a leg.