The Bald Prima Donna review: ‘visual delight’

Corinna Harrison (Mrs. Smith)
Corinna Harrison (Mrs. Smith)

By Sofya Grebenkina

Eugene Ionesco’s ‘pseudo-play’ The Bald Prima Donna is a peculiar experiment for the Durham theatre scene in the absurdist theatrical tradition. Raving Mask Theatre, presenting this nonsensical delight in Hatfield chapel, offers the audience an ‘anti-play’ filled with heightened physicality and grotesque expression. In its overall consistency in the tempo of the action and the obvious signs of clear direction it is worthy of a foray into this extravaganza of ridiculousness. However, due to there being only a small cast, individual mistakes were more easily determined than if the play had been of a larger scale.

The Bald Prima Donna is an anti-play, has no plot, no notion of time and space, and no characters in the conventional sense. Nevertheless it manages to present the audience with the themes of social convention and communication, for consideration. It is an exploration of the deterioration of language and its futility in modern times. Ultimately we witness language bypass convention so that in answer to a question posed by one of the ‘characters’: “What does this all mean?” we can safely answer that in the accepted sense it can mean, nothing.

The small size of the chapel lends itself to an intimate performance, and heightens its unsettling nature, especially when the characters break the fourth wall and appear to address the audience directly. By its very nature, the chapel also epitomizes the idea of prescribed social constructs. The intimacy was further felt due to the only props being a set of identical chairs, which easily transitioned from one scene to the next. The lack of black outs or even an interval served to preserve this idea of the unity of action and allowed the audience to develop a coherent emotional response.

The arrangement of the audience seating also commendably lends itself to the theme of mirroring which is echoed in the two couples of the Smiths and Martins. As the play is performed along a certain axis, some scenes are deliberately structured so that each side of audience members is privy to a different version of the same performance. It is regrettable that even from the front row, one therefore inevitably misses certain actions and expressions, yet it is duly sacrificed for the sake of the over-riding vision. Perhaps the only issue with the venue is the frequently-heard toll of church bells which jars with the intended sound of bells in the play and occasionally distracted the audience from the dialogue.

Sam Arrowsmith (Mr. Smith) and Corinna Harrison (Mrs. Smith), while acting so as to subvert the comfortable notion of meaning, still offer the audience through their portrayal the recognizable demeanor of a middle-class English couple in the London suburbs. They attain a delicate balance between nonsensicality and middle-class stereotypes in their expression, movement, and voice modulation. Both are robustly dynamic and distinctly attune to each other’s roles. Regrettably Helen Fitzmaurice (Mrs. Martin) and Andy White (Mr. Martin) did not pair so harmoniously. White clearly presented a man of nervous disposition; however he was excessive in his portrayal, and his voice frequently rose to an unnecessarily high pitch. Next to White, Fitzmaurice seemed to be too stiff, and did not commit fully to the grotesque physicality so necessary for the piece’s successful execution.

The pseudo-play is worth seeing, and by the nature of its arrangement is worth seeing twice. Despite the inconsistency in the standard of acting, the all-round effort invested in the production is evident. It was still a refreshing portrayal of the familiar, and a visual delight.

Photo: Juliano Soares

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