Utopia Theatre takes on Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist farce in an old warehouse in Peckham. It’s an unusual venue, but then again it’s an unusual play.
We find Ionesco working on a new play when he is interrupted by Bartholomeus, a doctor, demanding to know if it is finished it or not. Though Ionesco tries to explain that it is not perfected, Bartholomeus persists in getting him to outline the play. He begins to describe the play. It is about Ionesco working on a new play when he is interrupted by Bartholomeus, a doctor, demanding to know if is finished or not. Though Ionesco tries to explain that it is not perfected, Bartholomeus persists in getting him to outline the play. He begins to describe the play. It is about Ionesco working on a new play. Then he is interrupted by Bartholomeus, a doctor, demanding to know if it is finished or not.
Following so far? Good.
It is a difficult work to keep up with, but then that’s absurdism. But what’s interesting here is that Ionesco uses nonsense, contradictions, and circular arguments, to attempt to make an analysis of the role of the playwright, theatre, and critics within society. It’s a barmy muddle, but if you manage to stay with it and not become as loopy as the play itself, it’s actually an incredibly deep and thought-provoking essay on performance.
This isn’t the first time that director and company founder Moji Kareem has tackled the piece, which is apparent in her meticulous approach and understanding of the work. There is a bevy of nuance that, if you take the time to notice, enhance the scene. There are the shadows projecting against the tilting flat, a subtle materialisation of one of the themes explored; the books that the Bartholomeus’s pick up, interrogate and destroy; and the ‘costumology’, where each Bartholomeus represent a different faucet of criticism: public, academic, and the critical profession.
But Kareem also finds time to fit aesthetic in as well as intellect. Snug inside Kady Howey Nunn’s strikingly hectic yet colourful mangle of books and strewn copies of The Stage, there are some great visual moments, such as how the pages of the books Bartholomeus I and II are tearing out float like leaves to the ground. There are also some wonderful skits of physical theatre as Kareem works closely with movement director Gerrard Martin. If you aren’t quite engaged mentally, you can still enjoy the show visually.
Then there are the cast, who approach the play with great gusto and talent. The quartet is very tight, particularly the Bartholomeus’s. Lucie Chester is wonderfully snarling and bullying as the professional critic. Olivia Nicholson is excitingly barmy as the academic, pouting and teetering around like a cross between Klaus Nomi and Edward Scissorhands, suddenly turning into a vicious and unrelenting pedant. And Sarah Sharman is wistfully bouncy and easily distracted as the personification of the public. All three have a great sense of fun abd energetic interaction as they berate a dazed and molested Thom Solberg, when not bickering amongst themselves.
The only fault is that the text is a bit dense and difficult to get into, especially as some of the themes are quite existential, making it drag if you don’t particularly care about the subject or can’t just understand what’s going on. But making up for this is the fact that this is a vibrant and knowledgeable production of a very high standard. Slick and sufficiently crazed it is a superb theatrical experience of marvellous metaphysical madness.
The Shepherd’s Chameleon plays at the CLF Art Café, London, SE15 4ST until 25 May 2013. Tickets are £5-£12 (concessions available). To book visit www.clfartcafe.org.