Life, amorphous, unpredictable and a bit of a mystery, is, with luck, rendered containable by art. We may not know why we are here, but, with the help of narrative, we can attempt to give events and emotions shape and meaning. The theatre of the absurd, reaching its apotheosis in the 1950s, just before realism (helped by television) got its grip on playwrights, acknowledges more truthfully than naturalism ever can that existence has no plot. This can either seem terribly depressing or hilarious - or, possibly (as in Beckett) both at once.
At the Donmar Warehouse (a place which, in touch with the zeitgeist, rarely loses whatever plot there is), three short plays under the title Absurdia, exuberantly directed by Douglas Hodge, celebrate a revival of Absurdism. The programme lasts a mere 90 minutes, but it provides an opportunity to see two plays by the octogenarian (and until recently almost forgotten) NF Simpson - A Resounding Tinkle and Gladly Otherwise - and a new piece by Michael Frayn, The Crimson Hotel.
Simpson shows us how artificial “normality” is by applying straightforward logic to extraordinary situations. If you have ordered your usual elephant and a much bigger one is delivered, how do you cope? Exchange it for a neighbour’s (too small) snake - obviously. And why shouldn’t prose be offered as necessary sustenance instead of boring old tea?
It is good to see again these plays, in the tradition of the Goons and, later, Monty Python. A Resounding Tinkle was originally a much longer piece, but the short version quickly makes its pointless point. Gladly Otherwise, with its concentration on suburban anxiety (exemplified by a surprise visitor inspecting handles), says more in a few minutes about keeping things in proportion than any number of self-help guides. But I’m falling into the trap of explaining the inexplicable...
Michael Frayn’s brilliant contribution is more sophisticated, in the tradition of Pirandello rather than Spike Milligan. An adulterous couple lost in the desert are simultaneously in a French hotel and in a theatre, acknowledging the presence of the audience. The spirit of Feydeau hovers over proceedings, but the result is a more complicated existential exploration than any French farce provides. Peter Capaldi and Lyndsey Marshal (also riveting as Simpson’s nubile sex-change lovely, Uncle Ted) come into their own in an dazzling display of mime and comic timing as non-existent doors slam, imaginary furniture is skirted and invisible curtains swish.
Carolyn Downing’s sound, Paule Constable’s lighting design, Scott Penrose’s special effects and an exemplary stage management team underpin this beautifully controlled mayhem. Theatrical chaos takes meticulous planning. The other two actors, Judith Scott and John Hodgkinson, provide excellent support as unseen voices here and in the flesh elsewhere, while Vicki Mortimer’s set ingeniously transforms locations in a suitably surreal manner.
The whole evening is a joy for anyone willing to leave the logic of everyday common sense at home. As Frayn’s Pilou says (while enticing his lover into a magically expanding picnic basket): “I think we have finally succeeded...in abstracting ourselves from the painful reality of the situation.”