What a real treat this is: having just announced her resignation as artistic director of the Gate, Thea Sharrock - who will be directing Peter Shaffer’s Equus in the West End next spring - has revived Martin Crimp’s superb 1997 translation of Eugene Ionesco’s wonderful tragic farce, in which a nonagenarian couple sign off in a tower surrounded by water after welcoming a crowd of invisible visitors, and the emperor, the king of kings, to hear the Old Man’s farewell speech.
In the 1950s, Ionesco’s play became part of the ideological battleground between absurdism and social relevance, even though it was always a Royal Court play. The distinctions are not so clear these days, even if the old debate has lately been resurrected by David Hare and Peter Hall. In the consummate playing of Nicholas Woodeson and Susan Brown under Sharrock’s baton, you get a sense of both valedictory, lyrical euthanasia and disappointment in a little man’s lot.
The old boy is a janitor, “master of mop and bucket,” who believes he has a final message, based on his long experience of life, to impart. His wife is an unfulfilled assistant in this sad delusion: “You could have been grand chess master of the hunt,” she sighs wistfully. When the orator arrives to make the speech (Michael Byrne is a figure of impassive, gaunt neutrality) he turns out to be a deaf mute.
By then the stage is filled with three dozen functional chairs and the old couple whirled about in the onrush of imaginary guests, including a field marshal, a lady in mink, and one rude functionary who enchants the Old Woman with his sexual overtures. Brown plays this scene with hilarious, ecstatic abandon, suggesting a suppressed sensuality that evaded Geraldine McEwan’s beautiful but more precisely mannered performance ten years ago.
McEwan’s partner was Richard Briers at his muttering, jaw-clucking best; Woodeson plays the Old Man’s self-important announcements with a brisker, choppier temper. While Brown floats through the show with a comic charm that would suit Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, Woodeson resembles a busy, bearded, officious, chunkily built Alan Yentob (the BBC television arts supremo).
The climax of the show is a gift to any half-way imaginative director, with chairs piling up, bells sounding, doors swinging, lights flashing. Brown suddenly turns into a theatre usherette, hawking imaginary programmes and ices. The audience is stilled. The old couple slip through separate windows to their splashy nemesis. The orator says nothing. We hear the audience shuffling, coughing, and then leaving. The lights come up and we are still sitting there. It is beautifully done, much better than half-way imaginatively. Two little lives slip away and the least we can do is hold on to our own.