Absurdist play gets tactile retelling at Stratford Circus

The new production of The Chairs, adapted by Extant, features an experimental set. Picture by Lily O

The new production of The Chairs, adapted by Extant, features an experimental set. Picture by Lily Owen - Credit: Terry Braun

A sensory and modern adaptation of Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist play The Chairs arrives at Stratford Circus on April 28-29.

Heather Gilmore plays Old Woman. Picture by Terry Braun

Heather Gilmore plays Old Woman. Picture by Terry Braun - Credit: Terry Braun

The classic theatre show has been adapted by arts company Extant, the UK’s only professional performing arts company of visually impaired artists,

It will feature a tactile set from designer Angela Carr, including a post-apocalyptic bunker and a multi-layered soundscape which uniquely incorporates audio description into the play.

The story, first performed in 1952, revolves around an elderly couple – played by Heather Gilmore, who is partially sighted, and Tim Gebbels, who is blind – who are frantically rearranging chairs for a number of invisible guests to their home.

The Old Man has a message he wishes to deliver to the world and everyone is anxiously awaiting a mysterious orator to arrive and reveal its meaning.

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Extant’s artistic director and CEO Maria Oshodi – also the play’s director – says using visually impaired actors plays a greater symbolic part in highlighting the ambiguities that arise from the characters’ confusion and anxiety.

She said: “You are looking to the characters in order to think ‘is that happening or is it just in their head?’

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“I was really interested in exploring reality and what is real and what is made up.”

Although the script adheres to Ionesco’s exact text, the creative team under Maria’s direction has “worked very hard to bring it up to have a very contemporary message”.

There is a particular emphasis on social and physical decay, with bodies and minds breaking down, she says, adding: “There is a lot of repetition of and fogginess that goes round and round in the characters that is a reflection of people who are living longer now,” said Maria.

“The “decaying” set is also a social comment on technology. It feels as if the characters are coming out of some catastrophe of technological failings.”

The Chairs has already received huge critical acclaim and praise from audiences.

“People have said they have never seen anything like it before,” said Maria.

“It is funny, bawdy and poignant. It is able to flip from one thing to another very quickly.”

The set effectively acts as a clever physical mapping system for its actors to navigate themselves around the stage.

Various sections of the floors are raised, while a series of buttons, dials and clocks adorn the walls, providing visual feasts for the eyes, Maria added.

“We wanted people to have a sumptuous experience.”

April 28-29. Tickets £5, conc. £13. See click here to book.

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