views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Bald Prima Donna and The Lesson
The Space
14th August 2013

★★★☆☆

Publicity image for A Dark Night Rises

Photography supplied by The Space

Directly following on from their run of Jack or Obedience and The Future is in Eggs, New Dogs Old Tricks are staging another back-to-back helping of Eugene Ionesco, this time The Bald Prima Donna and The Lesson, two of his early absurdist plays. They both involve his hallmark non sequiturs and are circular in narrative, making them worthy pieces, but definitely intellectually challenging ones. If you like your theatre openly accessible, Ionesco is not the playwright for you. But if you're a fan of Theatre of the Absurd, this promises to be an interesting evening.

It takes a little while to collect your thoughts; after all, the narrative in The Bald Prima Donna isn't meant to make much sense. It's a play which ridicules how people talk and talk without ever really saying anything to each other. At the start of the play, Mrs Smith (Stephanie Lodge) sounds like she's swallowed the EFL equivalent of Encore Tricolore, as she recites perfectly standard but disconnected sentences at her husband (Alex Maude), rather than having a real conversation with him.

When dinner party guests Mr and Mrs Martin (Alex Harvey and Jodyanne Richardson) come to the conclusion that they must be married to each other, it's a damning statement of relationships, exacerbated by the maid, Mary (Claire-Monique Martin) explaining that they definitely aren't who they assume the other one is. In the same casual way as you might mix up a bog standard umbrella with another one, the Martins forget what their spouses look like and take home one who looks about right. And the introduction of the Fire Chief (Gabriel Keogh) brings both levity and discomfort.

A bit of "quelle heure est-il" peppers the script, and projected onto the wall is a stylish but bizarre clock which doesn't seem to have the right numbers on it, and which doesn't tie up to the times discussed by the characters. The loud, ominous from set and sound designer Alex Colias is unsettling.

In The Lesson, a similarly odd encounter unfolds, but one which is even more dark and insane, if possible. The same maid (Martin) answers the door to an enthusiastic young pupil (Stephanie Harte), ready for her lesson with the well-known Professor (Omri Kadim). The set is slightly different, the large table replaced for a more intimately sized round one, but otherwise, it's just a perfectly average looking room. A neat touch is seen in the use of designer Alex Colias' blackboard, there's a wonderful penny-in-the-air realisation.

Both plays are repetitive and at times frustrating, such is the nature of Absurdist works. The final third of The Lesson is uncomfortable, as the pupil tries unsuccessfully to excuse herself, complaining of a worsening toothache. But there is a great payoff, with a lot of humour created by Martin and Kadmin.

Director Katie Frodsham gives a political bent to both plays, with posters to both sides of the stage, and messages broadcast onto the back wall. A bold red and black cog logo is prevalent in the design, with the characters wearing badges and armbands of this motif, and indeed there is a bowl of badges on the table during the first play. It's a unique design, but the strong red and black colours evoke memories of Fascism, and the broadcasts of political censorship. This nameless party is blocking the communication between the characters even further. It's a bold decision which wasn't written in by Ionesco, but which does fit with his work.

Although Ionesco's plays are predominantly short, one-act affairs, staging two back-to-back - and then yet another two - is a daring move. It takes time to let Ionesco's ideas sink in and make sense, but New Dogs Old Tricks take us through his work quickly in an enjoyable, if somewhat baffling experience. Rarely would I recommend a production that is so confusing, but here it makes a point and as your mind processes and re-processes what it has seen, you feel enriched for it.

The Bald Prima Donna and The Lesson opened on 14th August and runs until 17th August 2013.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)



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