A conversation about staging Eugene Ionesco’s “Theatre of the Absurd.”
The philosophy of absurdism is generally ascribed to Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. He saw the human desire to seek meaning in existence as inherently flawed because there is no meaning. Our desire to go on regardless is the very basis of the absurd.
Defining absurdism within a theatrical context is a bit more difficult though, because it becomes as much about the traditions of the movement and style of absurdist theatre as it is about the fundamental ideas.
Productions of “pure” absurdist theatre are relatively rare in New Zealand, but Auckland theatre audiences will have the opportunity to see Eugene Ionesco’s rarely produced The Lesson which opens this week at Basement Theatre. The play is essentially plotless, but toys with dynamics of power and language between a teacher and his pupil.
As the director of the show, Matt Baker, best known as a theatre critic over at Theatre Scenes, tackles the text with a conceptually-driven approach utilising a medical-horror design by Christine Urquhart, and features Mustaq Missouri as The Professor, Natasha Daniel as The Pupil, and Donogh Rees as The Maid.
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NATHAN JOE: When people ask you “What is absurdism?”, how do you normally define it?
MATT BAKER: Oh god… theatrically speaking?
NJ: Yeah, let’s say theatrically.
MB: Absurdism, to me, is a theatrical genre—an extreme theatrical genre—that allows playwrights to address concepts through allegories. I think that’s the main thing for me. So you look at something like Rhinoceros, and that’s his allegory for communism, consumerism and that type of thing. The Lesson is more about fascism. It’s a way of addressing something through allegory basically. That’s how I’d encompass it, essentially.
NJ: Then there’s also, I suppose, the absurdist construct and structure. What are the rules most absurdist plays follow?
MB: Well, the main things I always pick up are: cyclical plot; usually you get to the end and you realise it’s all going to start over again; death is always a big one; non-sequitur dialogue is a big one. My favourite one ever has got to be proliferating matter, which is—you look at something like The Chairs and it’s just more chairs coming on stage, more chairs coming on stage. Rhinoceros is just people turning into rhinoceroses. And it’s funny because the proliferating matter in The Lesson is not revealed till towards the very end. You never actually see it, but they explain what it is. And I always find it darkly comical. People with dark senses of humour tend to find absurdism very funny.
NJ: With audiences expecting a more traditional linear narrative, do you think they’ll embrace it?
MB: That’ll be the test really. It’s about bombarding the audience with all this information. They shouldn’t have time to stop and think about things. There’s all these rules and lessons that The Professor is teaching, but if you start thinking about it we’ve lost you. So I guess they won’t really have time to sit there and go, “I don’t know how I really feel about this.” The play starts, it’s bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, and then boom, lights up, get the fuck out of here.
NJ: It’s quite a short play isn’t it?
MB: Yeah, very short. Depending on which copy you have, it’s around 30-35 pages. But it’s a very intense and dense 30 pages.
NJ: Around 45 minutes?
MB: Yeah. Well there’s one section which is literally one line, but we’ll be extending that out to possibly a minute or two on stage. So it’ll probably end up stretching to about 50 minutes or so. But definitely under an hour.
NJ: So, why The Lesson?
MB: I choose plays based on one or more of three things: entertainment value, intellectual stimulation, or emotional catharsis. The Lesson was a one-sitting read that boggled my mind—it’s all about the first two. I just remember being very bombarded, myself, when I read it. I think my thing, with any project, is that if I read a play or experience a play, if I have an extreme reaction to it, I want other people to have this reaction as well. It’s essentially what it is. So if something hits me, I go, “Yes, let’s get more people reacting like this.” And I remember reading it and wondering where it was going, and it went in completely different directions from where I thought it was going to be. It’s also a chance for me to explore a genre at the opposite end of the spectrum to my previous directorial work, which has been mostly naturalistic. I think it’s important to push yourself out of your comfort zone as an artist. It doesn’t have to happen all the time, but it’s a good way of challenging both yourself and your audiences.
NJ: Is there a particular thing you look for in your actors?
MB: There’s a heightened acting style necessary in absurdist theatre. A problem I often see is actors playing things with grandeur before finding the truth. I always wonder how they got there in rehearsals, whether they ever stopped to consider “Why does my character do what they do right here, right now?” A lot of the acting feels superfluous, without foundation. You can go as far as you want with absurdist performance, but, like any other form of acting, it has to come from a core truth.
I gave the play to Natasha [Daniel] about two or three years ago. One of those “have a read of this play…” offers that you make to an actor you think would be right for a role. She has an incredible intellect and works harder than anyone I know, so I never questioned whether she would “get it.” She told me she loved it and that’s all I needed.
I had seen Mustaq [Missouri] in a few absurdist pieces and chatted to him about his past experience working in that theatrical genre. He expressed interest in the show, and when I lost Bruce Phillips to Shortland Street I offered him the role. He’s on a great roll at the moment as an actor, so I was lucky to secure him. He is also currently without representation, so I have a sneaky side goal to get him signed with an agency.
Donogh [Rees] had recently worked with Ben Henson, who raved about how wholeheartedly she threw herself into the rehearsals. I offered her the role and she asks to meet and chat about the play. She was sizing me up, of course, as you would in that position. We have a similar want for great theatre and she’s been a tremendously helpful instigator of the discussions necessary in dissecting the play.
NJ: Tell me a little about the set design of the show, because medical-horror is the keyword that’s been tossed around [in publicity].
MB: Christine (Urquhart), our set and costume designer, has an amazing ability to extract a thematic element to a play and expand from that conceptually. For The Lesson, we ended up with what I termed a medical-horror design, which Christine then took even further, while maintaining minimalism. We’re working on a raised long traverse in the Basement mainstage, which has heavily informed the movement and physicality of the piece. Christine also found a great quote about Ionesco and his experience with “the light,” which informed a lot of our design. I can’t wait to see Mustaq in his costume…
NJ: Because a traditional staging would be a drawing room setting.
MB: It’s a drawing slash dining room, which I found quite interesting, because it’s that idea where you devour things in a dining room. But it’s so prescriptive. You read the text, and it’s chairs stage-left, down-stage left, facing right, etc. He’s so specific. We’ve thrown that completely out the window. But, yeah, the medical-horror design—there’s something about absurdism that requires a heightened thing, and for some reason I kept having this image of Vincent Price in my head for The Professor. And I thought that worked quite well. All those B-grade Vincent Price horrors really inspired my perception of the design.
NJ: So, in a way, you’re working against the traditional staging and reading of the text.
MB: Very much so. It’s a way for people to access the text as well, because if you were to give that play to the average punter to read, they’d probably get stuck after three pages and go, “I don’t get it. I can’t follow this. This is ridiculous.” But if you give this something—not gaudy but—extravagant to be able to tap into, I think then you can access that a bit easier. Spectacle elements, Aristotle said were important part of theatre, but when you come to putting on a play it becomes quite important.
NJ: Especially when it’s very plotless.
MB: Exactly. So it’s about taking plot being the most important, spectacle being the least important, and flipping it.
NJ: Do you think New Zealand audiences will find any relevance to the thematic material or the ideas in the play?
MB: As I said before, absurdism is used as an allegory. I think here it’s about how knowledge is power. Politically-speaking, knowledge is very much about power, and that’s why you have governments controlling education. It’s the best way to control people. Not necessarily to the degree of propaganda, but just simple changes to schooling structures, results, the way points are awarded, that kind of thing. And I think there’s been a lot of changes under the current government, to do with education. You know, theatre should be political, but I’m not pointing the finger at National. Let’s just be aware of what’s going on around us. But the question is whether or not audiences will take that away.
NJ: For me, when I read it, I found the way that language is used to be the most prominent aspect, the inability to communicate. The breakdown the language, and the breakdown of communication, no matter how inarticulate or articulate you might be. There’s always that clash of nonsense and everything ends up being brain vomit and white noise.
MB: Verbal diarrhea.
MB: That’s the thing with Ionesco as well, the inability to communicate. It was a big thing I learnt when I was in Germany, because I was teaching English and learning German. And just that idea of not translating, of having a concept of a word, especially in foreign languages. You have words that have a concept you can’t articulate in your own language. You just have to, sort of, birth this new concept. But even then, though, that’s what we’re always doing with every word.
NJ: Are there any other absurdist plays that you’ve seen in New Zealand recently, or ones that have elements of absurdist theatre?
MB: I’ve only ever seen two absurdist plays in New Zealand: Waiting for Godot by ATC in 2002 and Cagebirds by Wild Boy Productions in 2014. I’ve seen many other productions that have purported to be absurdist, only to have learnt that the creators didn’t understand the defining terms or theatrical elements that absurdism employs. In saying that, there have been a few shows recently in which New Zealand playwrights have been edging towards absurdism. I’d say they’re more surrealist at this point in time, but they’re heading in the right direction. I think the closest was Finnius Teppet’s show The Non-Surgeon’s Guide to the Appendectomy.
NJ: I know the word absurdist is used for, say, a lot of Thomas Sainsbury plays, but they’re not absurdist in the proper sense. They’re absurd, silly, and strange. So nonsensical and absurdism aren’t necessarily the same thing, but we often see people using those terms interchangeably.
MB: Very much. I think you hit the nail on the head between absurd and absurdism. People think because something is weird it’s absurdism. No, no, no, no. no. Absurdism, like you were saying before, has certain conventions and things that need to be employed. And you don’t need to employ all the things; Ionesco wrote plays that don’t have death in them and whatnot. But I think we’re starting to get on the right track with Finnius’s play. I remember this one moment where they pulled out the tools. They took the tools out of the bag and they just never got used. I was like, “No, you pull them out, we need to see them do it. We need to see them perform the self-appendectomy. Are you insane?”
NJ: Right, because it becomes like a Chekhov’s gun.
MB: Exactly. I think that’s what I said in my review. It’s like a Chekhov’s gun. And it would’ve—I could see how it would’ve finished and fit perfectly into the narrative that he constructed. He had an absurdist convention right there, but he just sort of put it there and never used it.
NJ: So, as a practitioner, you’re also an actor and critic obviously. Do you find those inform your work as a director or vice versa?
MB: They all inform one another. My entire grounding in the arts comes from my training as an actor. Raymond Hawthorne and Mike Saccente can pretty much lay claim to any of my successes.
I’ve always enjoyed writing, though I never had the desire to become a critic. That was all due to Pippa Neels (blame her) who asked me if I was interested in writing for Craccum after we chatted about a show we’d both seen. I gave it a bash and discovered not only was I good at it, I loved it.
As a critic, there’s a result in the process of having to articulate an artistic concept in easily interpretable and entertaining words that helps one to identify meaning. I wrote out my own synopsis for The Lesson and immediately had an overview that allowed for an easier dissection and observation of the play.
Sophie Henderson then got me into directing professionally—this is only my fourth professional production. I had directed a few pieces in Short+Sweet thanks to my friend Jonathan Hodge (amazing audition director) who used to be the festival director, and combined with my previous work as a critic, Sophie “encouraged” me to put something on at The Basement. I believe her exact words were, “When are you going to direct something, Matt?” followed by an unblinking, challenging stare.
NJ: Which show was this?
MB: Well, the first one was Mo and Jess Kill Susie, Gary Henderson. And the second was Unseasonable Fall of Snow, also Gary Henderson. I essentially couldn’t pick between the two plays, so I wanted to do both. And she went, “Okay.” And I’ve done a few things through Short+Sweet and just, again, it was that ability to articulate ideas, explain to someone without telling or showing them what to do. Sort of giving them an idea they can carry and follow through with, and get the result that you’re after. I really enjoyed that.
Again, ironically, lack of communication and inability to understand doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be understood. And that’s a big thing with absurdism in general, is that there’s no meaning to life, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to find it. Which is such a contradictory concept. Why not? It’s not going to kill ya. Life’s going to kill you in the end. And I think it’s the same with theatre. Yeah, we’re never truly going to make ourselves understood, even as artists. People interpret out work in any way that we want, but we still fight to go, “No, I want you to understand this idea. I want you to understand this concept. I want to challenge the way you think.”