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Director's Note

Time, Fire and the Crisis of Language

'A civilisation based on words is a lost civilisation'


When I was a 21-year-old student, this quote of Eugène Ionesco's was the basis for my final performance piece. Now, ten years later, I find myself coming back to it as I complete the process of rehearsing his The Bald Prima Donna with HPYT.

Romanian-born Ionesco (1909-1994) spent his childhood in France. La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Prima Donna) was his first play. Originally written as a sketch to be performed by his friends at social gatherings, it was inspired by Ionesco's experience of learning English via the Assimil method. Copying stock 'English' sentences and phrases in order to memorise them, Ionesco became increasingly interested and amused by the stark profundity and banality of the clichés he was faced with.

First performed in French at the Théâtre des Moctambules in May 1950, the play was pretty much panned by the critics, although the audience reception was more favourable, responding particularly to the comedy of the piece. The play explores the marital and social relationships of Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr and Mrs Martin, "typically English" married couples, and their encounters with each other, Mary the Maid, and the local Fire Chief on a typically English evening in a typically English house in a typically English suburb of London.

The Bald Prima Donna contains themes that Ionesco would continue to explore in his writings for the next 30 years; namely time, fire and what he described as "the crisis of language". In the 'England' of the Smiths and the Martins, time has no linearity, and the characters (and audience) are constantly made aware of time passing and of the struggle to fill it purposefully. Ultimately they are waiting for something… expecting something… and words are used to plug the gaps. The words stop the silence from speaking. The idea of fire; a "flood of light" as Ionesco described it, in this play serves as a release from cliché-bound banality - "the impossibility and futility of communication".

It is certainly easy to see why, on first analysis, it confounded. In The Bald Prima Donna, Ionesco rejects the more traditional dramatic storyline and instead builds dramatic structure from language; from rhythms, sounds and the repetition of words. Ionesco delights in language and the tangible 'feel' of a word or phrase. Within The Bald Prima Donna, words propel, dominate, amuse or suffocate the characters; words gain a life of their own.

So why do such a play with the Hampstead Players Youth Theatre? In his introduction to Ionesco's Fragments of a Journal , Donald Watson quotes Ionesco as saying that 'wonder' is his basic reaction to the world. For Watson, this 'wonder' is the key to Ionesco. Wonder and the limitless imagination are "characteristic of a child's view of life". Throughout the one month of rehearsing this show, I have never failed to feel wonder at the creativity, adaptability and humour of the six young performers you are about to see. For me they have taken on what many see as a "difficult" play and found within it the same things I did as a student - a delight in language. How funny words or phrases can be if taken out of context or juxtaposed together in new and surprising ways. We have laughed a lot and hope you will too!

Matthew Stevens
February 2007

 


 

The Bald Prima Donna

Review of the Hampstead Players Youth Theatre production

Hampstead Parish Church is a difficult place to act in. The awkward sight lines keep you on your feet, for fear of being lost to view. The acoustics, in that cavernous space, force you to face downstage as much as possible. Turn upstage, or even sideways, and your voice is lost. Intimate plays with not much action, but with a lot of verbal intricacies, therefore present more problems than do plays with lots of movement, which can make free use of this unique space, or can admit of a more declamatory verbal style.

Crypt Room productions - and their offspring, the Summer productions, with their variety of small-scale venues - are a different matter. Here, the closeness encourages, even forces, an intimacy between cast and audience, and allows every word its true weight, and every nuance its full expressiveness. No-one who was there can forget the electricity of Julius Caesar in the tiny Placette in Monflanquin last year, or of A Midsummer Night`s Dream on the space in front of the church, or of our Crypt Room productions of Dreams of Anne Frank and of Hamlet, to name but two.

Matthew Stevens` Crypt Room production of The Bald Prima Donna exploited this intimacy to the full. Ionesco`s play was written for domestic consumption, to be performed at home among a group of friends. Like him, we had the perfect audience: of friends and families. And we also had the perfect setting: not an actual 1950s suburban living room (or should it be `lounge`?) but one so lovingly re-created, and so like the place I was brought up in, that the cosy, humdrum mood could be donned, like an old dressing-gown, even before the play started. The typically English Drawing Room of Mr and Mrs Smith, a typically English couple, on a typically English evening.

The price of food was going up. Where would it end? Here was the austere post-War world as we knew it. And perhaps it takes an East European author (Havel and Stoppard are other examples) fully to appreciate the theatrical possibilities of the humdrum, of the menace which lies just below the surface, of the need to burst out into occasional bouts of anarchy, and of the need always to hold on to your sense of humour. Among other things, this was a very funny play.

Humour needs to be treated seriously, and we had a lovely dead-pan performance from Mrs Smith (Clementine Hollyer), chattering artlessly to her recumbent husband (Rikki Horwitz-Crook), as he hid behind his newspaper, and an even more dour journey of discovery by Gilles Geary and Stephanie Stapleton, taking ages to find out that they had traveled up from Manchester together and were, in fact, Mr and Mrs Martin, and wedded to each other. Hilarious, unexplained non sequiturs abounded: a long conversation about a whole family called `Bobby Watson`; the sudden transformation of the charming Maid, Mary (Sophie Becker), into a researcher called Sherlock Holmes; the Smiths and the Martins sitting together in a long embarrassed silence, their facial expressions saying everything; their long discussion about who rang the doorbell and when; the puzzled Fire Chief (a cheerful Sujan Mohinani) looking for a fire to put out and the householders apologizing that they didn`t have one.

At one point Mrs Smith`s story-telling went into a loop, and began to come around again. This was also how the play ended, with the seamless replacement of one married couple by another, implying how boring and repetitious life was. The whole farrago, we felt, was capable of being re-run, ad infinitum.

But there were sinister undercurrents, too: Mr Smith`s cheerful suggestion that a doctor, like a captain going down with his ship, should die along with his patient; Mary`s unsettling poem about everything catching fire; sudden outbursts of anger, such as the screaming imprecation about the `bald Prima Donna`, and of anarchy, particularly in the argument full of unconnected one-liners, which degenerated into a strobe-lit orgy of destruction at the end. The darkness of the humour reminded me both of Alice (like the story of the dog and the elephant, whose moral was for the hearer to discover, which was pure Humpty Dumpty) and of Grimm Tales (like the convoluted genealogy of the Fire Chief`s story, and his long-lost, fairy-tale `reunion` with Mary the Maid).

I have got this far without mentioning that the play was performed by a group of young people, the youngest aged eleven. However, we are beginning to get used to the HPYT taking on plays designed for adults and bringing their own qualities to them: innocence, freshness, energy, yes, but also a certain knowingness, which allows them, for example, to give us beautiful, if disconcerting, parodies of adult behaviour. Parents beware! You are being observed.

Well done, Matthew, for once again having brought out the best from an enthusiastic, hard-working and talented group of young people, who gave us crystal-clear diction and expressive, humorous playing. Well done, too, the production team - Elie Ball, Jane Mayfield, Moray Jones, Rebecca Siddall, Howard Hudson, Bryan Pilkington, Gavin Williams and Kevin Josling. Such a long list reminds us of the preparation and back-up that a production like this needs - and is fortunate to have. Having sat in on HPYT rehearsals and workshops, I appreciate the hard work and inspiration that goes into them - and the fun and enjoyment that comes out. The HPYT has a full programme this year, so watch this space.

Bill Risebero
February 2007