On London Stages, Maverick Responses to Mortality

LONDON — The opportunity to see Kathryn Hunter in peak form is a rare treat, and one that is currently available by booking a seat for the Almeida Theater’s revival of “The Chairs.” This hugely gifted actress plays a character, billed as the Old Woman in Ionesco’s 1952 classic, with enough boundless wit and energy to make a mockery of age.

Recently, Hunter has been acclaimed onscreen for playing all three witches in Joel Coen’s adaptation of “Macbeth,” starring Denzel Washington, for which she won a New York Film Critics Circle award. But this American-born mainstay of the London theater also gleams onstage with an unbridled delight in performance that is a pleasure to behold.

The result lends a welcome immediacy to Ionesco’s potentially inaccessible exercise in absurdism, which hasn’t been staged here since 1997. That version, directed by Simon McBurney, Hunter’s longtime colleague at the Complicitétheater company, transferred against expectation to Broadway, garnering six Tony nominations. This new iteration, adapted by its director, Omar Elerian, runs until March 5, leaving time for Hunter to limber up for her next stage assignment: playing Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe this summer.

The Old Woman, in fact, is in her 90s, so older than Lear but blessed in Hunter’s interpretation with a wide-eyed sense of wonder. Having been coupled for 75 years with the Old Man (played by Hunter’s own husband, Marcello Magni, another Complicitéveteran), she joins her elegantly dressed spouse in awaiting the arrival of any number of guests to attend some sort of conference that may save the world. Or, more likely, not.

Among them is a Speaker (Toby Sedgwick), who is this play’s equivalent of Beckett’s elusive Godot. The difference is that the Speaker actually does show up, allowing the duo to bow out of lives that haven’t been easy: “We shall decompose in marine solitude,” announces the Old Man. “Let’s not complain too much though.”

Premiered in French by the Romanian-born Ionesco, “The Chairs” preceded “Waiting for Godot” by one year and represents a landmark text more often than not confined to the classroom. Committed to dusting away the cobwebs, Elerian’s English-language version insists upon the contemporary whenever possible. Before he is even seen, the Old Man is heard fretting about the performance: “Tell [the audience] I have Covid,” he says to his wife in an offstage argument about whether or not to do the show. Afterward, we learn that the Old Woman has had 21 booster shots.

Once they emerge before us, the pair call to mind two aging vaudevillians having one last hurrah. She totters about in a red wig and dark petticoat, curtsying with endearing politesse and suggesting in her singularly throaty voice that “we cut the next bit; it’s terribly long.” (The production runs nearly two hours, no intermission.) He proffers a handkerchief to a nearby audience member and readies himself for the chairs of the title, several of which Magni manages to catch in midair: no mean feat for someone of any age. Ionesco’s original text calls for 40 chairs minimum, but I lost count of the quantity at the Almeida.

Those chairs, of course, sit empty as comic business gives way to the stuff of tragedy. We hear of the children the couple wanted but never had and the “pain, regrets, remorse” that have been their shared fate instead, the Old Man chastising himself for allowing his mother to die, untended, in a ditch. Abandonment, he says, is an inescapable fact of life.

The emotional pull of the material remains sufficiently strong that I wish Elerian’s adaptation wasn’t quite so fussy. The opening shenanigans are awfully forced, as are the closing remarks from the Speaker, who usually utters scarcely a word in this play. A discourse on “alternate truths,” this orator’s rambling observations are attuned to the concerns of the world today but nonetheless feel like padding. Its farcical elements notwithstanding, the play is sufficiently powerful as is, Ionesco’s overriding bleakness as topical now as ever, which speaks volumes to how little has changed in 70 years.

From left, Sam Archer, Ash Hunter and Lucy McCormick in “Wuthering Heights,” adapted and directed by Emma Rice at the National Theater.Credit…Steve Tanner

Even more so than Elerian, Emma Rice is a prominent director-adapter who doesn’t take familiar texts at face value. A former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Rice made her name running the touring company Kneehigh, which deconstructed such time-honored titles as “Brief Encounter” and “Tristan & Yseult.” Since then, Rice has started a theatrical entity called Wise Children, whose irreverent take on the Emily Brontë novel “Wuthering Heights” can be found on the Lyttelton stage of the National Theater through March 19.

The eclectic impulses behind this production are evident from its cast, which brings together dancers, performance artists and a “Hamilton” alum to tell the corpse-strewn story of the foundling, Heathcliff (Ash Hunter, the veteran of the aforementioned musical), and the ill-starred Catherine (Lucy McCormick, a maverick talent who moves between self-devised work and plays such as this one). Juggling several roles is the charismatic Sam Archer, an actor-dancer whose nimble movement very explicitly keeps Rice’s take on this 1847 novel from seeming earthbound: It’s always helpful to have a performer on hand capable of soaring at any moment.

Rice’s freewheeling approach to the material won’t suit the purists. It’s surprising to find the Yorkshire moors — a setting crucial to the novel — brought to three-dimensional life by an assemblage led by the arresting Nandi Bhebhe, who seems to be wearing a crown of sticks and twigs and has a retinue of similarly attired human plants. Elsewhere, the convolutions of the plot are confronted head-on. “How is anybody expected to follow this?” asks the resident narrator, Lockwood (one of Archer’s several roles), only for Bhebhe to chip in with an awareness that “no one said this is going to be easy.”

Rice’s goal is to ease a path through a labyrinthine novel by bringing her total-theater aesthetic to a music-heavy production that announces the characters’ fates on a chalkboard, a choice that taps directly into the association many will have with this novel from their student days. A trim or two wouldn’t go amiss, and there are times when the reinvention seems reckless, not revelatory.

But I won’t soon forget a fierce-eyed McCormick haunting the action from beyond the grave like an ongoing premonition of doom, and Katy Owen’s chirpy Isabella Linton all but steals the show: a figure of audience-friendly fun amid the landscape of mortality that, as with “The Chairs,” we come to realize is our shared lot.

The Chairs. Directed by Omar Elerian. Almeida Theater, through March 5.

Wuthering Heights. Directed by Emma Rice. National Theater, through March 19.

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