The Bald Prima Donna
Drayton Arms Theatre
Reviewed – 5th June 2019
“Julie Drake’s direction establishes the mastery of Ionesco’s script while risking a contemporary slant”
It wasn’t until he decided to teach himself English in his late thirties that Eugene Ionesco was inspired to write his first play, ‘The Bald Prima Donna’, which premiered in 1950. Diligently copying the simple, conversational phrases of his Assimil course, these sentences began to lose their educational purpose and take on a life of their own, expanding and distorting to give an underlying surrealism to an outwardly controlled and orderly way of life. Considered as one of the core representatives of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, his linguistic fascination leads to an observation of everyday situations and behaviour with innocence and often, puzzlement. The directness of his fast-moving, humorous dialogues appeals to audiences because of their familiarity as he moves them out of context, creating nonsensical mirror-worlds.
‘The Bald Prima Donna’ is cleverly structured as a gradual awareness of our use of words, clichés and maxims, the action accelerating from tranquil niceties to raging gobbledegook. In 5Go Theatre Company’s revival of this ‘anti-play’, Julie Drake’s direction establishes the mastery of Ionesco’s script while risking a contemporary slant and original artistic touches. The multi-racial casting and passages in Spanish and Polish are a thoughtful update on today’s stereotypical society but the initial narrated stage directions, however amusing, perhaps undermine the ability to put across the ‘Englishness’ through the acting.
A typical, middle-class scene is set in Mr and Mrs Smith’s living room – he is fixedly reading the newspaper and she is quietly darning socks. The peace is broken and the tone of the unexpected is set when the clock strikes seventeen and Mrs Smith comments “Goodness! It’s nine o’clock!”. They discuss domestic banalities; they are visited by their friends, the Martins, who discover, after a while, that they themselves just married; the Smith’s maid, Mary, appears to confuse things; finally, the Fire Chief arrives to put out a non-existent fire. On the whole, the actors create well-defined characters, though the opening scene lacks a quirkiness.
Sunil Patel portrays an unflinching Mr Smith, with a worrying glint in his eye but Kate Ruscombe-King, as his wife, sometimes rushes through her lines, leaving Mrs Smith as a less rounded role and not giving the audience time to absorb Ionesco’s writing. There is a change of gear as Mr and Mrs Martin enter in full eccentricity. Hugo Linton does well, clinging on to his sanity while Penelope Bosworth gives a wonderful interpretation as her immaculate self-control eventually gives way. Leena Makoff (Mary) balances the clever yet peculiar maid beautifully and Fabio Torrico conjures up a particularly vibrant Fire Chief.
Although the pacing and colour of the performances take time to get under the skin of Ionesco’s work, it is nice to see an interesting, committed and entertaining production of this ambitious ‘tragedy of language’ and reflect on the idiosyncrasy of Englishness at a time when its identity is being put to the test.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography by Olga Torrico
The Bald Prima Donna
Drayton Arms Theatre until 8th June
Previously reviewed at this venue: