It’s a familiar question.
Tell us a story when you were going about your own business and something completely ridiculous or inexplicable happened. What did you do?
I walked into a familiar space with a ticket to a secret show. The new fashion across our local theatres is to serve up a play that is a mystery. I had no idea that this show I saw a while ago would be the most absurd experience of my life.
Cue: The Bald Prima Donna by Ionesco
The Bald Prima Donna is a classic piece from the theatre of the absurd. Offering the audience advice such as ‘a haddock in a paddock is better than a crab in a lab’ and ‘I’d rather slaughter a rabbit than whistle in the garden’, Ionesco’s play is surreal and hilarious. The action is set in a suburban London drawing room. Mr & Mrs Smith and Mr & Mrs Martin are presented as middle class benchmarks, with some sturdy lines like, ‘The only respectable thing in England is the Royal Navy’. Meanwhile, the lady of the house obsesses over which shop purveys the best mayonnaise.
However brilliant the cast portray their characters, this is an anti-play where Ionesco’s satire is the real star and try as we might, the audience never gets close to the actors. Truly amazing is the way the Director is able to bring so many themes out in this complex piece of writing. I spotted a few old chestnuts, like how much of our everyday conversation is unthinking and ritualistic. Sections of the play let us fantasise about what it would be like to say what we are thinking out loud as the cast reveal what is going on in their heads. We take a glimpse at what life is like for the two couples brave enough to be on stage when reality is suspended. We hear Mrs Smith firmly argue that ‘when the doorbell rings this means there is nobody there’ as the play examines whether truth is important in our lives. I imagine people who are addicted to the glossy lifestyle of today’s suburban London might miss the irony of whether truth is important.
If all this sounds a little serious, be reassured that the audience laughed loudly and often all the way through the performance. The humour is brought out with imaginative use of movement and excellent timing whilst the satire is always hanging in the balance with lines like “a maid is always a maid…she hasn’t had the necessary education”.
Overall this is an excellent piece of Oxford student drama being intelligent, witty and giving you the opportunity to admire the impressive architecture of St John’s auditorium. The level of production and performance verges on the professional. Should you feel the need to debate the ideas, you’re left with enough time to get a round in at the pub afterwards.
The title of the play was taken from an absurd English phrase book and the play ends with the question on everyone’s lips ‘What about the bald prima donna?’ The reply is, ‘She always wears her hair the same way’. Oh well, ask a stupid question…
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Enjoy posts from other writers on absurdity here or below