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The Chairs | Te Pou Theatre

It’s a typical New Zealand 1970s home, maybe even a bach. It’s open plan, a basic kitchen with sink and kettle on one side, and a number of board games and knick-knacks on the other.

In the centre are a series of photos of a couple visiting the Beehive, the giant kiwi fruit and other tourist locations around the country, and beneath these a small bookcase. Two windows at opposite ends have flapping curtains and there are three doors – all in a straight line. Stained wallpaper completes the decor and in the middle sit an old couple.

This is Eugène Ionesco’s bleak absurdist classic Les Chaises (The Chairs) given a kiwi twist but, essentially, the narrative remains the same: The Old Man (Chris Rex Martin) and The Old Woman (Jake Love) are preparing for guests who will arrive to hear The Old Man’s message delivered by none other than a professional orator. In classic Ionesco style, the guests are invisible.

The original play is a tragic farce, pathos and comedy sharing the limelight as a dishevelled ageing couple reminisce about the past in a world that, when it was written in 1952, was still recovering from World War II.

Because Adam Rohe’s direction sets this work firmly in Aotearoa New Zealand, the result is both a strange linguistic experiment but also a rather bizarre cultural one. In the context of four productions of The Chairs in four different languages, it seems strange that the English version is completely absorbed into Te Ao Pākehā. Although it acknowledges a Māori world view this comes across as stilted, antiquated and awkward.

Performed by two youthful male actors, the narrative is no longer about an elderly pair suffering bouts of nihilism at the end of their life. Instead, it morphs into a kitchen sink drama revolving around a cantankerous and self-indulgent senior whose wife takes turns in patronising and pandering.

The actors’ comedic timing is good but the production constantly verges on slapstick and some of the most beautiful moments are rendered hollow – especially with the end. Ben Sarten’s stage design is perhaps one of the most appealing features of the production but it isn’t quite enough.

The ongoing fascination with updating modern plays to give them a unique New Zealand perspective is part of a popular trend but these choices hinge on the fact that, for whatever reasons, these works – in their original form – are perceived as not being accessible to local audiences.

In the case of The Chairs, the Te Reo Pākehā version has become less about social dramas with mid-century themes that could still find resonance today, and more about creating a version of the work for Pākehā audiences – that unfortunately, in the process, has lost the heart of the story.