The Chairs
Te Pou Theatre, Auckland
August 2nd, 2018
5/5 stars

It really was fantastic to be able to sit next to my dad and watch him actually laugh at the jokes in a performance. Te Pou’s multi-lingual seasons of The Chairs really hit me when I could see the effect it had on my Cantonese dad. And even though I have minimal understanding of Cantonese, watching this performance made me feel at home. I can’t imagine how it would feel to my dad and others in the audience.

The Chairs is comical piece of physical theatre that follows an Old Man and Old Woman. The crux of the play concerns the Old Man’s discovery of some universal truth, but his inability to communicate it. Thus, he invites an array of people to listen to an Orator’s recount of the Old Man’s realization of the meaning of life.  

I previously watched the Pakeha season, and was a little confused as to how some of the jokes would be transferred into the Cantonese culture. But walking into the theatre, I knew there was no need to worry. The set had been completely transformed into a traditional Ancestral hall! Details were meticulously considered, right down to the black and white photographs taped to the wall.

Ionesco’s original script was not overtly changed, but tweaks were made to the script to really connect with the culture of the audience. There was mention of egg tarts and pork buns and the small changes to the script really emphasized the symbiosis between language and culture. It would be a crime to just perform the script in Cantonese and expect it to still resonate with the audience. As Renee Liang said in our interview: “[The Chairs Cantonese season] is full of like great inside jokes for Cantonese speakers…we haven’t done anything Ionesco hasn’t written but we’ve added a layer to it”.

Despite the language barrier for me, I couldn’t help laughing at the physical humour and farce. Although adhering to Ionesco’s explicit stage directions, some creative license was used to ensure the performance would fully translate into the Cantonese culture. Sam Wang (Old Man) and Audrey Chan (Old Woman) were so full of animated life and energy, it was impossible not to laugh. They were respectful of the culture and deeply aware of the varied audience they would be performing to. Wang and Chan’s performance, on the surface, was entertaining and farcical. But, there were multiple layers of culture and Cantonese in-jokes and perfectly executed humour, poignancy, existential truth that made this performance great.

Whether you have a connection to Cantonese, can fluently speak it or cannot speak at all, the Cantonese season of The Chairs is for everyone. Let one of the many cultures and languages of Aotearoa wash over you. Te Pou’s The Chairs empowers everyone and provides a space for people to feel represented, included and accepted.

The Cantonese Season of The Chairs is running at Te Pou Theatre in New Lynn from 1-4 August.

Jennifer Cheuk is an English/Communications and Linguistics major with a passion for graphic novels and sophisticated picture books.  She likes eating grated cheese and watching niche films. Can be found cartooning and writing on instagram: @selcouthbird.