After Magritte and The Bald Prima Donna – Progress Youth Theatre’s absurdist double bill

published in Curtain Up, January 2014

In an age when, sadly, naturalistic drama still dominates both stage and screen, Progress Youth Theatre’s double bill of absurdist comedies came as a breath of fresh air.

The first offering, Tom Stoppard’s After Magritte, opens with a surrealist non-sequitur of brightly-coloured images – a woman playing a tuba, a police constable staring through a window – all set to strident jazz and giving way to a no less bizarre flood of situations played out in Reginald and Thelma Harris’s front room, where the iron deployed by Reginald’s tuba-playing mother is attached by its cable to the lampshade, itself counterbalanced by a hanging bowl of fruit, and where Reginald dances on furniture while shouting at Thelma about a strange character they saw outside a Magritte exhibition, who may have been a one-legged footballer, a fugitive minstrel or a blind man with a tortoise.

So far so confusing! But the pressure doesn’t let up. Whatever plot there is becomes even murkier when a detective, Inspector Foot, and his sidekick, a constable ironically named Holmes, arrive to investigate the so-called Crippled Minstrel Caper. The imagery grows more surreal, the shouting louder and the evidence so obscure that the entire theatre is finally plunged into darkness while Foot continues his ludicrous extrapolations.

Director Ben Sandiford and the actors, notably John Livesey as Reginald, kept up the break-neck pace, wit and downright craziness of this 1970 play. As a fan and amateur creator of absurdist theatre, I sympathise with writers who reject psychology, logical storylines and political messages. “I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application,” Stoppard once declared. “They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness.”

Despite this admirable stance, something was missing. As in most of Stoppard’s work, the dialogue blends linguistic and philosophical playfulness, but here it lacks a certain emotional punch – and perhaps also the disturbing quality of the Magritte paintings he clearly wanted to mirror on stage. Although wildly entertaining, I couldn’t help feeling this was more an exercise in Theatre of the Absurd than (if you’ll excuse the reference) the real thing.

 Photo courtesy of Richard Brown.

                          Photo courtesy of Richard Brown.

By contrast, The Bald Prima Donna is surely the very essence of absurdist theatre, and one of its first masterpieces, originally performed in Paris in 1950. Its Romanian-born author, Eugène Ionesco, had been learning English from a textbook and claimed to have been so struck by the eternal truths it contained – “There are seven days in the week” or “The country is more peaceful than big cities” – that he decided to give them dramatic form.

And so the play begins with the very English Mr Smith reading a newspaper at home in the suburbs of London, while his wife reels off very English facts about groceries and the local doctor. Hardly an auspicious start, perhaps... until he begins to question her certainties. Surely a good doctor should die with his patient, like a captain going down with his ship? Why do papers give the age of the deceased but never the age of the newborn? Soon the audience wonders what is really happening. Why are the late Bobby Watson's relatives – including his widow – all called Bobby Watson too? And how come the couple's guests, Mr and Mrs Martin, don't appear to know each other? What seemed like a cosy middle-class household soon becomes a hotbed of contradictions, with metaphysical arguments flying across the stage and even the occasional dagger brandished. Mrs Smith loses her temper when several identical trips to answer the door fail. "Experience teaches us that when one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there," she shouts. To their great credit, the actors playing the couple, Andreas Morelli and Martha Farrall, kept straight faces throughout and even appeared deeply passionate about increasingly abstract exchanges. Director Ali Carroll subtly builds up the absurdism: the enactment of surreal fables by two housemaids and a visiting fire chief leads on seamlessly to a volley of twisted maxims ("Groom the goose, don't goose the groom") and the Smiths' and Martins' final, triumphant cacophany of shouted syllables as they conga under sinister lighting to the background noise of a steam train. Ionesco was a master of anti-theatre, breaking every rule of plot, character, theme and genre; but he also demolishes our language, subverting our platitudes and shattering our grammar, our syntax, even the very structure of our words. And he does all this not as an intellectual game, but to make us laugh, create a thing of beauty and at the same time challenge our whole vision of reality. It’s a hat-trick few playwrights can pull off. So thank you, Progress, for this refreshing break from naturalism. It would be absurdly good to have some more.

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