The Bald Prima Donna is a challenging play for everyone: actors, audiences, critics. The first major work by Eugène Ionesco, it’s a seminal example of the Theatre of the Absurd, often argued to be a warning about what happens when existence has no meaning and communication itself breaks down. It’s filled with nonsensical dialogue and blatant illogic – and there’s no real consensus on what Ionesco was aiming to achieve. So what are we to make of this version?
There are messages there to be found, whether or not they’re the ones the playwright actually intended. In these troubled times, it’s hard to ignore the script’s references to immigration – cleverly highlighted here by having the play’s defining celebration of Englishness repeated in a pronounced foreign accent. But for me, a scientist by training, the greater part of the dialogue is concerned with the limits of empirical reasoning: the fact that, however much evidence you’ve gathered in favour of a particular belief, the next thing you discover might disprove it.
In the programme notes, director Sarah Mann also highlights the humour in the script, and it’s here that the performances grow a little patchy. Trefor Levins and Julia Knight milk one extended passage for all it’s worth, hilariously uncovering a “very extraordinary, very amazing” coincidence through a series of repetitive revelations. Later, Fenia Giannopoulou lets rip with a wonderfully overblown tale about the time the whole world caught fire, a bravura vocal and physical performance which can’t help but carry you along.
Other characters have their moments too – look out for Sarah Widdas’s seduction of a comically mismatched fireman – but overall, the tone could be sharper. This kind of humour works best if the characters don’t realise there’s anything absurd going on; if to them, the non-sequiturs and illogical constructs they’re using seem the most natural thing in the world. The middle part of the production felt a touch hesitant to me, offering too many opportunities for the mind to rebel against the nonsense on display.
There’s also a marked difference between the demeanour of the actors, especially when they’re not centre-stage. The aforementioned Knight and Levins fully inhabit their characters, delivering amusingly conspicuous responses to the events unfolding before them; but other roles are played with more detachment and distance. Intentional? Meaningful? Brechtian? Who can say.
It’s a bold move to tackle The Bald Prima Donna, and it’s all but impossible to distinguish your response to the performance from your acceptance of the whole concept of the Theatre of the Absurd. In the end, despite a smattering of highlights, this version didn’t quite win me over – but I’m still glad I took in this well-put-together production of a classic, though challenging, script.