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[[boxed]]Aside from its "two fabulous parts," both McEwan and Briers were intrigued by the innately theatrical quality of The Chairs[[boxed]]

Company, he got Judi Dench to direct Much Ado About Nothing. Derek Jacobi directed him as Hamlet, and I directed As You Like It. He was Touchstone, the clown, and he was wonderful."

It was in this late-blooming role of director——coupled, of course, with the ever-flickering antenna of an alert actress looking for a good role——that led McEwan to The Chairs. "I was reading plays, as one does, and I thought, 'Oh, I'll have a look at Ionesco, but I should think it's old hat.' I had no idea [The Chairs] had so much in it for an audience. I thought it would be a play of its time——the fifties——but when I read it, I was immediately intrigued by it. Not only did it have two fabulous parts, it seemed to have resonances for now. I was fascinated by the basic idea of these two old people in the last hour or two of their lives. It seemed such a wonderful theatrical idea, such a pure piece of theatre.

"Once I decided that I would like to do it, I thought, 'Well, who on earth could direct this and bring out all this fantastic, imaginative work and also challenge the actors into really playing these people?' I'd seen lots of Simon's work with Theatre de Complicite. His own productions very much have his stamp——very original, very imaginative and poetic——so I knew he'd be fabulous. I got in touch with him, and he immediately responded to the idea."

Two-and-a-half years rolled by, as McEwan and McBurney tried synchronizing schedules. Then Briers came aboard, and a co-production was struck between Theatre de Complicite and the Royal Court Theatre, where the first English-speaking production of The Chairs was performed exactly 40 years ago. 

"It's very daunting to do," says Briers, "and very rewarding, but it takes a long time to get control of it. The audience always seems to be with you, though, in their laughter and in their silence. There's something hypnotic about it - the lighting, the music and the effects - it comes from one purely theatrical experience."

As two-handed one acts go, The Chairs is a two-seater, occupied by an ancient couple - a 95-year-old janitor and his 94-year-old wife - who live in a circular island tower. Every night of their 75-year marriage, they settle down to an evening of mind games and ritualistic reminiscences - until this night. This is the night the old man is to deliver a message that has long gnawed on his addled brain - one, he feverishly believes, that will save mankind - and a mute orator has been summoned to articulate it properly before an audience that exists only in the minds of the odd old couple. An invisible multitude streams through the 19 doors of their living room while they frantically race about hobnobbing, finding necessary seating. Then, when all is in readiness and 61 chairs clutter the stage, they leap to their deaths in the mistake belief that the mime will do justice to The Message.

Ionesco wrote The Chairs in 1952, 45 years before a group of California cultists committed suicide believing they'd hitch a ride out of this world on a comet - and one year before Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot. "The two are quite similar, in the beginning anyway," says Briers. "Both wrote dualogs with two people in an isolated place with possibly nothing outside but fallout or, to bring it up to date, anthrax."

It has been quite a journey, from an actress investigation a musty old classic to the cerebral fire-and-light show now in a limited run at the Golden (through June 13). "The germ started with me," says McEwan, "then Simon responded, and he took it from there. Still, it's satisfying to actually initiate something yourself instead of waiting for people to ask you to do things that you either want to do or don't want to do. It's a lovely feeling. The only thing lovelier would be that this created an Ionesco revival."

This mystery thriller by J. B. Priestley was successfully revived by director Stephen Daldrey, first in London and then in New York.


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