Peter Buckroyd reviews The Bald Prima Donna, Bear Pit Company, Bear Pit Theatre, Saturday, 17th February
WHEN is the absurd not quite as absurd as you first thought? When it’s shown in a play from the Theatre of the Absurd.
Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna is almost as old as I am, but it’s still well worth seeing. The Bear Pit’s set is appropriately plain, simple, and rather uncomfortable. The walls are black curtains, there is a three-seater sofa and two chairs facing square on to the audience, a stool and a little table.
The plot is very simple. Mr and Mrs Smith (Thomas Hodge and Emma Beasley) open the play waiting for their guests, Mr and Mrs Martin (Tom Purchase-Rathbone and the accomplished and outstanding India Willes), who eventually arrive while the Smiths have left the stage. There is a maid, Mary (Claire Bradwell). A fire chief (Barry Purchase-Rathbone) enters towards the end of the play. There is chat. It ends.
Much of the skill is in the direction, and Steve Farr has a very sure touch. The groupings often look uncomfortable, as they ought to. Much of the play’s impact lies in pauses and prolonged silences which are handled extremely well throughout. There are abrupt changes in mood and tone, which are cleverly unsignalled and, therefore, delightfully unexpected. From time to time the lights change and something chimes. But if it’s a clock, the hours are random — just like the conversation. The characters’ reactions, mouths agape, are skilfully timed and shown.
The characters are English and although the utterances in themselves make sense, their sequence and context makes them absurd. When the fireman arrives, each character tells a story, each more bewildering than the previous one.
The characters repeat what each other say. They play lots of word games.
There’s talk about food. And the weather. Their mood changes for no good reason. It’s just like my granddaughters, who are two and four, and by no means absurd except in an ‘Absurdist’ way.
I had forgotten the bit where there is a ring at the door and on the first three occasions when Mrs Smith goes to answer there is no one there but on the fourth occasion, when Mr Smith goes, the fire chief is there. Mrs Smith says that it’s clear that when the bell rings there isn’t anyone there.
Mr Smith disagrees but she says the rule can only be made by counting the first three occasions. The fire chief, says he, was there on the third ring but he was hiding. Absurd? Maybe, but it’s uncannily close to a game my granddaughters were playing last week. I know they hadn’t read the play because they can’t read yet!
Ionesco wants us to recognise ourselves and Farr’s accomplished production certainly made me aware of the games I play and the vacuous conversations I engage in.
Ionesco would have been pleased.