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Interview with award winning director Matthew Parker on Theatre of the Absurd and Eugene Ionesco’s THE LESSON
It’s always a pleasure to chat with director Matthew Parker, not least because his directing choices tend to be quite brave. Now here he is again, bringing much-misunderstood Absurdist Theatre to the stage.
The fact that the National Theatre are currently playing Ionesco’s EXIT THE KING is a joy to Parker who has already seen it and started a conversation with its director Patrick Marber. He’s invited him to come along to The Hope to see what he does with Ionesco’s THE LESSON. Having studied Absurdism at University, Parker already has a head-start in his research as he has kept all his notes from that time.
The play tells the story of an enthusiastic young student arriving at The Professor’s house for her lesson, but no amount of studying can prepare her for the odyssey that lies ahead. Is Ionesco’s gripe, similar to Mark Twain’s adage about schooling: “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education”?
“Sort of” says Parker. “Ionesco was definitely concerned about the dangers of a formalised structured education. His two main themes are an examination of language and an obsession with death. One of his mains concerns is fascism and watching people conform." Romanian-French playwright Ionesco (1931 – 1994) saw the effects of Nazism first hand during WW2. "Ionesco was uneasy about what we are teaching people and are we teaching them the right thing?" says Parker. "One way of schooling and one way of thinking; is that
not just another form of fascism?”
Parker himself, enjoyed a very happy school life. He considers himself “lucky”, coming from a working class, comprehensive school background, he did well. He was academically bright, the first person in his family to go to university and he also got lucky with his acting degree. “It was a combination of formal and practical exploration, so only a small amount of my degree was written, and one part of my degree was a one man show. So, I did a show based on Ionesco. I went to uni thinking theatre was all panto and musicals and came out obsessed with new wave French Absurdism … and British Absurdism … Dennis Potter.”
Parker says this with a flourish, as it if it must be a surprise to discover that certain British playwrights were influenced by French Absurdism. Dennis Potter was a much-acclaimed playwright best known for the innovative TV play ‘Pennies From Heaven’ (1978) in which the character’s unexpectedly burst into song. Parker knows Potter’s work well. He directed Potter’s play ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ (The Hope 2017), which was infamously withdrawn from transmission by the BBC in 1976. Parker also touched on Absurdism when he directed “Sea Life” by Lucy Catherine. One of the things that really fires him up about directing Absurdism is “allowing the audience to behave and react however they want.” Parker explains, “someone might laugh and someone else not laugh, they don’t find it funny, or they’re bored.”
Parker loves tragic-comedy, and this has been a part of everything he has done. Ionesco is his favourite playwright for other reasons too. “He allows an audience to see the theatricality, his characters know they are being watched. Fundamentally it’s existentialism. How ridiculous it is to exist in this world; look at America and what’s happening in this county. We live in a painful horrible world.”
“Ionesco gives the director and actors fantastic characters”, adds Parker. “Because my work is very physical, and the way he uses language physicalises language; gesture matches to a word. I’m obsessed by how we read bodies on stage and he’s really funny and really horrific. Comic-horror is one of my main obsessions … David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS. The absolute horror that lies beneath normal people and lives. Think of Fred and Rosemary West or Christie. Everything I do in some way touches on that. And my theatre is always theatrical, strong rhythm, physicality and a bit funny and a bit horrible and makes you think.”
Of course, Parker is aware that there are pitfalls. “I have seen some of the things that people would describe as Absurd and they’re using the word Absurd in the wrong way. They think it’s being wacky or not making sense but it’s not Monty Python it’s looking at something from a non-linear narrative. It’s a philosophical argument or idea. People think it’s running around in stupid clothes which is absurd but that’s not Absurdist Theatre.”
“People don’t in reality talk about Pinter as an absurdist writer”, says Parker. “But come and see who influenced him? The new wave of French artists, talking about how difficult it was to live shit, because of the war.”
In directing THE LESSON Parker is conscious of other dangers. “I need to make sure the world of play is recognisable for audiences when the play starts, so when reality gets subverted and changed the audiences can follow you. And its asks a lot of you as a director, every single moment. What audiences read physically and emotionally, the actual words versus their meaning. There is a disconnect between words and how they are spoken, and the audience will read meaning into the words that are spoken. Often the words make no sense. Half the time I think I know what my concept is, but it keeps changing.”
Some things are certain for Parker. “In this three-hander the professor is a dominating male patriarchy. If I wanted to dress him up as Don Trump, it would be fine – he’s a tyrant. The pupil is idealistic and pure. I Know what happens with them. It’s what I do with the maid, it’s how complicit she is, in what happens in the play.” One of Parker’s current influences is The Handmaid’s Tale (the television series based on Margaret Atwood dystopian novel). “The maid could either be a Serena Joy or not be complicit but have to keep your mouth shut like a Martha” says Parker.
The poster for THE LESSON is just a knife. Ionesco believed that words in the wrong hands can be a weapon. “The word knife can be incredibly potent in the play” says Parker who imagines the impact on the sound design for THE LESSON. “Weaponry, instruments of torture and dentistry, the noise of knives, that high pitched noise in horror film, the sound of weapons."
THE LESSON was written in 1952 but Parker isn’t setting it in the 50s. “It’s the not too distant future that owes something to the past. It’s a very old-fashioned tale just like The Handmaid’s Tale – I call it future past.” Parker has had to visualize it in the theatre space. “I run the space so it’s hard to visualise it anywhere else. One of the first questions I ask myself is what do I want it to look like in the room? I dug my uni notes out from shed, and I’d written ‘every man is an island, every human is alone which is an Absurdist idea. So, I’m having it in the round on a raised platform in the middle.”
“Because Ionesco is dissecting language, I looked at Victorian operating theatres. Those images of dissections with medical students watching in an amphitheatre. One of the characters gets toothache, so I’m thinking about dentist’s surgeries”. Parker is sold on the clinical route, going back to The Handmaid’s Tale, those scenes in the doctor’s surgery in clinical bright white. “A cold clinal approach, that’s how the play feels" he adds, delighted that he can just speak with the designer and someone else will be implementing his ideas. He’s relieved he’s not the designer.
Parker was impressed with the design for EXIT THE KING at the Olivier theatre (The National Theatre). “An amazing thing happens in the final act, takes your breath away, changing your heart beat, I’m really obsessed with breath.” He clearly loved the production albeit with some reservations as he felt a lot was “not quite right, they didn’t quite get that bit, it sagged a couple of times”. However, he thought the central performance of Rhys Ifans who plays the king was “amazing, from hilarious clowning physicality to massive sobbing tragedy. I think it's bad that it’s taken so long for Ionesco's work to be staged at the National – EXIT THE KING is Ionesco’s debut on the South Bank. But I'm glad it's there at last!”
When asked how he felt about competing with the National, Parker was not at all fazed. “I’m very proud to be running at the same time.” There are hundreds of seats at £15 for EXIT THE KING, at Olivier Theatre. All seats at the Hope are £15/12, so how can The Hope compete? “You can’t buy that connection between audience and actor that you get here at The Hope”, says Parker. I love the Olivier obviously, but, in The Hope, you can create and sustain an atmosphere. It’s harder in the Olivier. The sense of claustrophobia in this play is obviously going to work better at The Hope than in a massive theatres seating.” Parker sits back in his seat. “Am I worried about the competition? No, I’m delighted that there are two Ionesco plays on in London.”
THE LESSON by Eugene Ionesco
25 September – 13 October 2018
At The Hope Theatre, Islington, N1 1RL
@September 2018 London Pub Theatres Magazine Ltd
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