This, Ionesco’s first foray into that form of theatre we now call ‘the absurd’ could come across to us as just that in the usual sense – it is, and this production successfully transmits this, deeply funny. Ionesco did not find it so, however, and we cannot fail to feel the destabilizing effect of language which fails to engage with conventional speech patterns and a presentation of reality that refuses to obey mathematics or the rules of time.
That is not to say that this play is chaotic: in fact, as the clauses of the opening sequence show, it is so neatly constructed and so well balanced that the mundane becomes marvellous. The precision of the cast allows this to shine through. With their dealing of it each episode really clicks, even if some (such as the extended recognition scene of the Martins) seem a little too drawn out. Cater and Yusuf-George have moulded a production with truly excellent acting – each actor successfully emphasizes the extremity of their roles but with sufficient variation to avoid the risk of caricature. Take Mary for example, a role of great aggression and social expression sensitively performed.
They have a command of the language when it is at its most laconic or most extended: the Fireman, for example, makes his anecdotes evolve until in the final extended monologue the whole cast has welded to listen and comment so that each word seems vibrant and meaningful.
Alex Midha and Fiona McKenzie brilliantly play out the stereotypes that their names ‘The Smiths’ suggest, while making sure that every oddity of character, every bizarre element of their immaturity and conventionalism is played out; Tom Coates and Arabella Milbank give us a vibrant contrast. Juxtaposition of sexual and asexual, flows of speech with silence, anger with cheeky humour give us a highly concentrated play and a linguistic treat. Only at moments does a twinkle in an eye or a curve of the lip hint that they are having too much fun!
This is a play that makes so much of the incidental, whether its framework of an English lesson or a replay of a recognition game played by Ionesco and his wife. And the name? La Cantatrice Chauve was a slip of the tongue by one of Ionesco’s actors.