Friday, November 21, 2008

Is it just me, or is it getting English-er out there?

GLEAMS THEATRE presents The Bald Soprano at Geordie Space
THE BALD SOPRANO is about the peculiarity of English life, English fires, English food, English chairs, English socks, English men, English women and everything English.Yes, all this is shocking, especially the first time you encounter it. After the war, Eugene Ionesco, who lived in France, began studying English, and wrote a play about the experience. Presumably he had also noticed how autistic, even catatonic, phrasebook-English speakers appear. Perhaps he felt lost without his native Roumanian and French - continental languages that entwine around reality, while English boxes it. Or perhaps he feared the world was growing Englisher day by day.This is where the Bald Soprano began: a reaction to culture shock. But Gleams Theatre's director Constantin Sokolov takes it a few steps farther. There's an introductory sequence that includes a fascinating monologue from another Ionesco play, THE CHAIRS, followed by a sequence in which the actors announce there will not be a play because the theatre is empty. Actor-ushers order the audience to get up and move to the other side of the theatre. Without a word, everyone cooperates, exchanging glances. Do these people know what they're doing? Is this a play? or something else? Should we leave now to avoid further embarrassment?The cattle are reseated. The play begins. A scene in London. A couple, seated in chairs. The husband is doing a crossword puzzle. The wife is darning socks. We know they are English by their accents, although their cellphones keep ringing, forcing them to switch to their real-life personas, before becoming British again. These improvised interruptions help emphasize the awkwardness and absurdity of the play.Inevitably the wooden English characters and their absurd dialogues become nearly comprehensible, and by Act Two we're almost interested in their 'story' -- which goes to show it's practically impossible to write something meaningless. Despite our best efforts to eliminate it, meaning creeps into everything. Time and habit create the illusion of familiarity and repetition builds suspense, even as Big Ben chimes 17 times whenever it pleases. Characters move like mechanical toys, changing chairs with no rhyme or reason; nevertheless, before long, they seem almost alive and the audience begins to care what will happen next. Somewhere between tension and total boredom, we await the grand finale of nonsensical lines shouted into space by maniacal robots on amphetamines.Despite a few gimmicks too many, this play was strangely satisfying. Could it be because, since 2001, we've been living in wartime? Or a simulation of wartime? In the beginning, wasn't Theatre of the Absurd a response to war and the psychosis it unleashes in every little corner of our lives? Didn't absurdity come into vogue between the wars? Aren't plays like this a way to relax and let go and indulge in a little controlled insanity after you've been trapped for too long inside the real, out-of-control kind?I'm all for more surrealism and absurdity in theatre. Nothing in the world is as solid or structured as an English play or English "life". No solid threat is real unless we allow it to entrap us in the fear of it. Down with television and newspapers. Down with the prison called English. The best response to the English Terror is a sense of irony and the absurd -- usually acquired after real immersion in a foreign language.