THE BALD PRIMA DONNA
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 13th February, 2018
Eugene Ionesco’s work is a staple of any self-respecting Drama course, but the Romanian-French playwright is hardly a household name. Which is a pity, considering the influence his absurdist style had on the works of Monty Python and the like. In fact, much of what we find in Ionesco is now deemed ‘Pythonesque’. Ionesco holds up social convention as something bizarre. His dialogue is full of nonsense and non sequiturs, repetitions and random outpourings – and this play is a prime example.
Mrs Smith (Emma Beasley) enthuses about lunch while her husband (Thomas Hodge) tuts and grunts behind a newspaper. She declares her affinity for all things English – including mayonnaise. Hearing such remarks in today’s England, I can’t help finding resonance with the nonsense of the Brexit vote. Almost everything we consume is imported from elsewhere. The play is vibrant with significance, it turns out.
Mr and Mrs Martin (Tom Purchase-Rathbone and India Willes) arrives late for dinner and are admonished. This couple struggle to recollect the circumstances of their acquaintance – even though it transpires they travel on the same train, live in the same street, the same flat, it turns out they are not who they think they are… This is a puzzling little sketch, beautifully performed by the pair, and expertly built to a crescendo by director Steve Farr.
The Maid (Claire Bradwell) is the only character to address us directly, breaking the frame, and is the most artificial of the bunch, flipping from hysterical laughter to wracking sobs in a flash. Bradwell radiates impudence and fun, to the exasperation of the waspish Emma Beasley and the boorish Tom Purchase-Rathbone. The company is completed by Barry Purchase-Rathbone’s Fire Chief, who is touting for business. He regales the group with rambling, pointless anecdotes and impenetrable fables, and his deadpan delivery is hilarious.
The whole group play things dead straight and speak what can be meaningless strings of words with conviction, and so the dialogue sounds as though we ought to understand it. Scenes are broken up and interrupted by a lighting change and the chimes of a clock, during which the characters tip back their heads, close their eyes and open their mouths, before getting on with their lives. These interludes symbolise how our lives are governed by time, by natural processes, by convention. Above all, these surreal episodes remind us what we are watching is stylised and artificial – just as the manners and etiquette of society are stylised and artificial.
Repetition of phrases, that become slogans, does not imbue them with meaning. And so, “She’s a true blue Englishwoman” spoken in a loop reminds me of “Brexit means Brexit”. Vague remarks about British decency and fair play are bandied around as if there is consensus on what these things are, or that they exist. The play ends as it began, with the opening lines of dialogue, except the Smiths have been usurped by the Martins, who now refer to themselves as the Smiths, and on the nonsense goes…
On the surface, this is a very funny production of a difficult script, with an excellent cast breathing life and emotion into nonsense. Beneath the surface, the play couldn’t be timelier as a snapshot of the nonsense of living in Britain today.