Venue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 15 – 26, 2016
Playwright: Eugene Ionesco (translated by Donald M. Allen)
Director: Barry Walsh
Cast: Timothy Hope, Ellie May, Luciana Nguyen, Matthew Neto, Cheng Tang, Rhiannon Watson
The play is set in a nondescript living room, awash in beige and old furniture, with no cause for excitement except for an inordinately large number of clocks greeting the audience. Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano is an absurdist, and perhaps surreal, piece that addresses the potentialities of theatre from a very fundamental standpoint. It explores the very nature of people on a stage, and how theatre practitioners are moved to act in the pursuit of an endeavour that might be termed artistic.
Ionesco removes notions of stories, characters and logical coherence, to locate a theatrical entity that can make sense without the reliance on narrative and other conventions for communication. Quite similarly, director Barry Walsh’s focus on time, with ticking sounds and aforementioned clocks, takes our attention to the way we might create meaning to fill up the very passage of time in our daily lives. The personalities on stage appear to be regular English folk, and like us, they try to go about their business as though full of reason and fortitude, yet there is no disguising their alien-like demeanour in the absence of rational dialogue. Without proper context or a sense of regular storytelling to guide us, ordinary people (or in this case, middle class suburbanites) begin to dissolve into a strange melange of movements, interactions and emotions, allowing us to observe human behaviour as though from an alternate universe. We are encouraged to find an understanding of the self through a process of detachment. For a moment, we become the aliens, looking in on Earth with fresh eyes to study the human process, and to realise the Dada ridiculousness of it all.
Walsh is adept at creating an atmosphere of awkwardness, which in itself is an intriguing sensation to experience, but also curiously relevant to the play’s essence. There is a gently comic quality to the scenes that he composes, but chemistry between actors can seem lacking in key moments where bigger laughs could be delivered. Performances are effective when the players become adventurous and are able to momentarily spin out of control, but there seems a tendency for them to feel needlessly restrained most of the duration. Timothy Hope as Mr Smith is the most mischievous in the cast, and leaves an impression with exaggerated manoeuvres that not only entertain, but are also in line with the spirit of the work.
Through strangeness, we approach truth. When encountering the bizarre, our instincts respond by identifying scant elements that provide familiarity, in order that we may formulate personal associations that resonate. How we read any instance of obscure artistic expression, relies heavily on the constitution of each individual audience member, thus presenting an opportunity for self-reflection. The act of theatre attendance is one of community, so the construction of meaning also occurs in the meeting of minds, and hence a collective reality can be manufactured. It is human to experience and interpret, and with The Bald Soprano, there is certainly plenty of room for both those pleasures.