Ionesco’s categorical dismissal of explicitly political theatre as inherently totalitarian and inartistic has probably led to his unfortunate neglect at the hands of Indian directors, despite the fact that he is undoubtedly one of the greatest theatrical geniuses this century has produced. Therefore, Alliance Francaise’s Delhi production of The Chairs (Max Mueller Bhavan, October 4) must be praised for the sake of its endeavour even though, as the fourth in his earliest quartet of playlets, it now looks simple compared to his mature full-length works.
In depicting the nonagenarian couple as a young pair in mime whiteface and black body stockings over which they put on symbolic white formal wear before their imaginary guests enter, Atul Mittal superimposes a visual concept of stylized clowning suitable to Ionesco’s surreal dramaturgy. Yet he ignores (perhaps for budgetary reasons) the most important part of Ionesco’s design: the elaborate set of multiple doors and windows at the back, through which the old couple exit and re-enter to deliberate slapstick effect. Besides, they commit suicide by jumping out the windows into the water below; this idea that they inhabit an island of loneliness, reinforced by the sounds of water and boats arriving, is also inexplicably omitted by Mittal.
Ionesco subtitled The Chairs a “tragic farce”; the farcical high point in this performance is the old couple’s embarrassment at the public indiscretion of the unseen Colonel and Lady, which Ionesco wickedly leaves to our imaginations. The tragic sublime is reached in the pair’s anguished valedictory speeches, metaphorically suggesting existentialist human isolation. In the sequence where the invisible Emperor appears, one wondered whether Ionesco intended an absurdist parody of Tagore’s The King of the Dark Chamber. Mittal and Sheeba Chadha immerse themselves in their parts, stressing physical action and the power of fantasy, arguably at the expense of Ionesco’s satire on the sterility of language and social conversation. But Chadha shies away from exploring the scarlet “hidden personality of the Old Woman”, specifically required by Ionesco for her scene with the Photo-engraver.
(From The Telegraph, 22 October 1993)