Stage Door Review

La Cantatrice chauve

Thursday, October 24, 2019

✭✭

by Eugène Ionesco, directed by Chandra Gibson

Théâtre français de Toronto, Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, Toronto

October 23-November 3, 2019

Mme Martin: “Comme c'est curieux et comme c'est bizarre”

The Théâtre français de Toronto is currently presenting the archetypal play of the Theatre of the Absurd, Eugène Ionesco’s La Cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano). The fact that Toronto hasn’t seen a professional production of this classic since Soulpepper’s production in 2001 is reason enough to see it. The fact that the TfT performs it in the original French (with English surtitles) makes it a must see for anyone interested in the history of drama. Though director Chandra Gibson has made some unwise choices, none of them seriously affects Ionesco’s text, a text that the excellent troupe of actors bring vividly to life.

The play was originally staged in 1950 but since 1957 it has been staged continuously at the Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris. It thus holds the world record for a play staged continuously in the same theatre for the longest time, (Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has played in London since 1952 but has changed theatres.) TfT Artistic Director Joël Beddows and director Gibson give many serious reasons why the play seems more relevant now that ever in light of how politicians distort words to mean whatever they want and in reaction to the breakdown in communications because of social media. Yet, the mere fact that the play has run continuously since 1957 should suggest that the absurdities the play highlights are universal and have been appreciated as such over the past seven decades.

As one of the purest of absurdist plays, it has no plot. Rather it consists of a sequence of interconnected sketches. The action begins at the home of M. and Mme Smith (Manuel Verreydt and Geneviève Langlois) in London when the clock strike 17 times and Mme Smith announces it is 9 o’clock. Making fun of the the use of exposition in drama, Ionesco has Mme Smith make a speech emphasizing that the setting is in England: “Nous avons mangé de la soupe, du poisson, des pommes de terre au lard, de la salade anglaise. Les enfants ont bu de l'eau anglaise. Nous avons bien mangé, ce soir. C'est parce que nous habitons dans les environs de Londres et que notre nom est Smith”. One reason why the play is best seen in French is the absurdity of the staunchly British characters he presents speaking French as their native tongue.

The apparently indestructible edifice of social mores begins to crack when it comes under attack from sequences that undermine the notion of identity. In the first M. and Mme Smith have great difficulty when they attempt to discuss the death of Bobby Watson, since all of Bobby Watson’s relatives and his wife and her relatives are all named Bobby Watson.

The second attack occurs when the Smiths’ dinner guests, M. and Mme Martin (Pierre Simpson and Sophie Goulet) arrive after the Smiths have already dined. M. Martin and Mme Martin know that they have seen each other before but only by establishing a long series of coincidences – taking the same train, living at the same address, sleeping in the same bed – do they establish that they may actually be husband and wife. This conclusion, however, the maid Mary (Christina Tanous), proves to be false. Not only are they not husband and wife but he is not Donald Martin and she is not Elizabeth Martin. 

This second sequence brings up the topic of the fallibility of logic. Logic is tested when the doorbell rings and it happens that no one is there. Mme Smith asserts that when a doorbell rings that no one is ever there while M. Smith asserts that when a doorbell rings there is always someone there. Two more times the doorbell rings and no one is there. At the fourth time someone is there. So both sides claim victory.

The personage who has arrived is the Fire Chief (Sébastien Bertrand) who has come to pay a courtesy call and to put out any fires. By way of entertainment they each tell anecdotes, each more bizarre than the last. Eventually, the characters resort to speaking random sentences, then random words, then random syllables until their “speech” degenerates into a succession of sounds and they begin to chant “C'est pas par là, c'est par ici” (“It’s not over there, it’s over here”). After a blackout the play recommences with the Martins taking the place of the Smiths, suggesting that the play is an unending continuous loop. In the space of only 65 minutes Ionesco shows us the collapse of society, human relations, communication and language itself. 

Since the 1957 production of the play has been running for 62 years, it might be considered foolish for directors to think they can make the play funnier than it already is. Yet, that is the trap that director Chandra Gibson falls into. Her first mistake is to supply the play with a soprano in the form of Christina Tannous as Mary the Maid. One of the reasons why Ionesco’s play is an archetypal absurdist comedy is that the title has absolutely nothing to do with the play. “La cantatrice chauve” is mentioned once in the text and to make that phrase the play’s title is part of Ionesco’s deconstruction of standard drama.

Gibson has Tanous sing the Ionesco’s stage directions in Italian as recitatives even though the play has nothing to do with opera. This makes Mary into a kind of stage manager figure in the play which she certainly is not in the original. The fact she pops out of obscurity to tell us about the true relationship between the Martins is part of the joke. Here, after we’ve seen her on stage from the start of the play, it is confusing to see her make her first entrance as Mary in Scene 5. Also, to give the play a stage manager figure is to give it continuity which is exactly what Ionesco’s techniques of non sequiturs for both sentences and scenes is meant to disrupt. Gibson has also given Manuel Verreydt a walking boot to wear as M. Smith as if her had a broken foot (he doesn’t). She has him say “aïe” every time he steps on the hurt foot as if a limp and M. Smith’s pain were supposed to be funny. They aren’t, and and the routine soon becomes tedious.

Further, Gibson has the cast enter as if their were old-fashioned robots that needed oiling. Ionesco’s point is to uncover the mechanical within the human. To start out portraying the characters as non-human undermines Ionesco’s satire.

Gibson makes an alteration to the text which could have been a disaster but in the hands of the her talented cast it actually works. In the original only Mary recites the poem “Le Feu” (“The Fire”). Again part of the comedy is that a character who has been so reticent should recite such a violent poem. This is lost in Gibson’s version since she has enlarged Mary’s role and since Mary sings the poem rather than recites it. 

Gibson’s idea is that all five other characters should also recite the poem. This would be quite a tedious exercise, but fortunately each of the five actors recites the poem in such different ways that we are amused at how the same text can receive such radically divergent interpretations. As one might expect, Bertrand as the Fire Chief recites the poem with great enthusiasm. The most humorous interpretation, however, is that of Goulet as Mme Martin. She recites it in English with a Southern accent and, like some character out of Tennessee Williams, the “fire” she speaks of, especially with her subtle gyrations, becomes a metaphor for sexual desire. The next most amusing version is that of Simpson as M. Martin, who, already clad as an intellectual, recites it in German.

Unlike the dowdy home for the Smiths of the production at the Théâtre de la Huchette, designer Alexandra Lord has given the Smiths a very stylish living room that moves the action forward to the 1960s. The brightly coloured costumes of Yves Castonguay fit the same period, especially his bright blue suit for M. Martin with his turtleneck and black-framed Yves Saint-Laurent-style glasses.

As the Smiths, Geneviève Langlois and Manuel Verreydt do a fine rendition of the complicated Bobby Watson sequence. Langlois is best of all the cast in conveying the self-satisfied snugness that Ionesco’s play is aimed at destroying. As the Martins, Pierre Simpson and Sophie Goulet are hilarious in the couple’s famous inquisition to discover how they know each other. Goulet’s Mme Martin is especially delightful in countering every new line of questioning from Simpson’s enthusiastic M. Martin with an increasingly perplexed “Comme c'est curieux et comme c'est bizarre” only to have it trail off in the same dull-toned “Mais je ne m'en souviens pas, cher Monsieur!” 

Though Gibson has altered the role of Mary, and not in a helpful way, Christina Tannous tackles the new interpretation with aplomb and proves to be a fine singer. Sébastien Bertrand is amusing as the pompous Fire Chief and recites the extraordinarily complicated tale of “Le Rhume” ("The Headcold”) with panache.

Ionesco’s classic play needs in no way to be made funnier and his text shines through despite Gibson’s needless changes and additions. The attractive modern design contributes to the notion in this production that Ionesco is satirizing not merely rigid societal behaviour in general but the class system in particular. Yet, as the performances of the cast make clear, the main reason why Ionesco’s satire has not dated is that people have constantly perceived how fallible language is and how nebulous the concept of identity is – how often people fail to communicate and how, they essentially do not know who they are. Chances to see professional productions of this key work of 20th-century theatre do not come along that often in Toronto. Therefore, theatre-lovers should not miss the chance to see such a pivotal work in such a lively production and in its original language. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Christina Tannous as Mary, Sophie Goulet as Mme Martin, Pierre Simpson as M. Martin, Manuel Verreydt as M. Smith, Geneviève Langlois as Mme Smith and Sébastien Bertrand as the Fire Chief; Pierre Simpson as M. Martin, Christina Tannous as Mary and Sophie Goulet as Mme Martin; Sébastien Bertrand as the Fire Chief and Geneviève Langlois as Mme Smith. © 2019 Théo Belnou.

For tickets, visit theatrefrancais.com.