This summer seems to be the season for British premières of neglected 20th-century French plays. A month after the opening of Jean Genet's Splendid's, we are now treated to the first UK performances of Eugene Ionesco's 1973 piece Ce Formidable Bordel, in a lively demotic translation by Donald Watson re-titled Oh What A Bloody Circus.
Roger McKern's shaven-headed, saucer-eyed and nameless protagonist finds himself constantly on the receiving end of interminable chatter and busyness. His former workmates bitch behind his back about his sudden inherited wealth then smarm with equal gusto when he accompanies them to a bistro; ex-lovers attempt operatically to re-ingratiate themselves; neighbours in his new apartment building prattle about everything from serial dog-killing to the metaphysics of furniture.
In the course of the first act, The Character utters perhaps forty words whilst those around him either ignore his silence or marvel at his inscrutability as if he were a Parisian equivalent of Being There's Chauncey Gardiner or (heavens forfend) Forrest Gump. There is only so much mileage in ever-changing expressions of mute bewilderment and horror, but McKern gets full value out of them. When his tongue is loosened (comparatively speaking) after the interval, The Character is revealed as more than simply a holy fool; rather, he is a thoughtful man unable to plot a course through the babel of life. It is a typically Ionesconian approach: The Character tries to make sense of things, the author merely records their absurdities exhaustively.
These pointless frenzies extend to a raging revolutionary war, a possible echo of les evènements of 1968 and, as the insurgents point out vacuously, a national tradition ("We are French, after all," says one). As The Character and his latest partner hole up in their apartment, the scenic structure shifts to a series of snapshots which plot the disintegration of the relationship and his years of eremitic seclusion culminating in a dying outburst of laughter at the meaninglessness of it all – a realisation no more or less banal than the preceding bustle.
John Burton's direction relishes the characters' enthusiasm for vapidities. Cartoon-like exaggeration is applied only sparingly: a seemingly endless succession of bottles of vin ordinaire uncorked on a bistro table, or Colette Makindi's appealingly vamp-like exertions as Lucienne to re-seduce her old flame (Makindi later re-appears in more innocent but equally alluring guise as new lover Agnès).
The play is perhaps twenty minutes too long, in keeping with the tendency of absurdist works to court tedium. But the Phantasmagoria company has given it a knowledgeable, sensitive staging which leaves one at a loss as to why it has taken two decades for this quietly exuberant work to cross the Channel.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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