REVIEW: The Chairs – Pākehā Season (Te Pou)

Review by Camilla Walker

[Park your Bum]

Te Pou Theatre presents a night of absurdity, hilarity, and larger-than-life character work in its inaugural Pākehā season of Ionesco’s The Chairs. Opening Te Pou’s quadruplet of productions of The Chairs in different languages – Te Reo Māori, Samoan and Cantonese are to follow – the English language Pākehā show sets things off to an outrageously energetic start.

The staging of an absurdist play across four languages, reflecting four different cultures, looks set to tell a fascinating story in itself – one about how we interpret, how we relate to, and how we observe our own and others’ culture in life and art. Under Adam Rohe’s direction, this rendition is sprinkled inventively with witty smatterings of Kiwiana to reflect its Pākehā fingerprint – and it’s full of interest, subtlety and mischief.

The Chairs follows an old couple’s chaotic, diffracted, mutually infuriating, moving and deeply human (if deeply absurd) passage through an evening, during which the elderly man attempts to make sense of his life. He has written a ‘message’, which he has hired an orator to deliver, and through the course of the play, the couple’s living room becomes an auditorium for an imaginary menagerie of characters from both husband and wife’s pasts, as they await the arrival of the orator.

As the invisible guests gather and absurd conversation unfurls, so does the momentum of the show’s bathetic comedy. As more and more chairs are packed into the set (with no two the same, much to the enrichment of the show’s kitsch aesthetic), actors Chris Rex Martin and Jake Love build up to a surprisingly tender emotional climax.

Ionesco’s characteristically poetic yet practically nonsensical writing is cracked open into an uproariously entertaining physicality by Martin and Love, who play the Old Man and his wife, Eileen, respectively, with brio. Their indulgent, at times almost commedia-style facial expressions, and fully-fleshed somatic tics and mannerisms kept the audience in stitches, and added a welcome layer of expressive play to the script. Challengingly obtuse at times, and dense with a darkly repetitiousness humour that could threaten to become impenetrable, The Chairs is a difficult play, but is handled here with directorial dexterity and comic agility by these two actors, with some moments of daring adaptation from Rohe, in alignment with this being a Pākehā rendition.

While novelty swaps – Paris becomes Invercargill, for example – keep things familiar, details like the old man (Martin) greeting the gathered assembly in his sitting room with a pepeha, and romanticising his first love, Arapera, with a recitation of Poi E, venture into more complex territory exploring the ‘othering’ of Māori that can belong to a Pākehā perspective. Tending towards sentimentality and a well-meaning yet ultimately uncomfortable exoticism in their apparent attitudes towards Māori, this old white New Zealand couple only exist within their own living room for the duration of the show, which serves as an interesting metaphor. Their patriotism towards British culture, and colonial decor likewise speak of a perspective that cannot see from beyond its own parameters, and it feels fitting that this comes across as absurd, ridiculous and at times grotesque through the play’s tone.

Martin and Love each present a caricatured yet nuanced character with sustainedly high energy, and commitment to exploiting the kind of ‘short-hand’ that develops between couples over decades. Love is a hairy, grunting, sweating, affectionate, naughty, insufferable and long-suffering Eileen. His brazenness is offset perfectly by Martin’s more repressed old man, who in spite of his concerted efforts to remain composed, yet erupts into his own uniquely absurd extremis – the recovery from which falls tenderly to the couple as a unit.

They face the horrifyingly banal yet fragile realities of existence and each other in a stunningly realistic fourth-wall Kiwi home designed and built by Ben Sarten. Lit warmly by Chez Marama, and complete with wallpaper, painted skirting boards, french doors, kitchen units, souvenir photographs of the couple at a variety of iconic Kiwi landmarks, and a functioning kettle that boils poignantly for over half of the play, the set is the perfect springboard for The Chairs’ Pākehā opening.

The Chairs at Te Pou is a rare and wonderful opportunity to see four different cultural iterations of the same play. The Pākehā rendition is a standalone success in its own right, but is doubly exciting for the ways in which it will undoubtedly be further enriched by watching the upcoming Te Reo Māori, Cantonese and Samoan versions. And if you need further persuading, Rohe’s cameo appearance as the orator is unforgettable.

The Chairs – Pākehā Season plays at Te Pou until 14 July. 

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