By Ethan Taylor, Content Team @Stagedoor
These days, with the exception of plays such as Waiting For Godot and perhaps the occasional Dario Fo piece, absurdist theatre in it’s purest form is sadly rarely performed in London’s theatres. However, it is exactly this apparent absence of absurdism in contemporary theatre, this gap in the market, that has drawn innovative young theatre company Theatre of Heaven & Hell to the form. When talking to founding member Elena Clements, she explains:
“We look to fill that gap which we see in theatre at the moment by reminding people that older absurdist plays are treasures, and have a voice of their own which strike a chord with how we live today.”
What is it then that is currently putting theatre producers off of this particular genre? One argument often heard is that current events have now reached such a degree of absurdity themselves that it nullifies any art form trying to top them. Indeed, satirical writers are now routinely hanging up their caps, claiming that their farces can no longer keep up with these caricatured political leaders who support minds as closed as borders and are in control of weapons the size of egos.
But conversely it is exactly this sort of political turbulence that is credited with inspiring the birth of absurdism in the first place. An overwhelming sense of spiritual hollowness is said to have descended upon those who had borne witness to the atrocities of World War II and many now looked to art as a means of processing this new and illogical state of being. Clements agrees with the notion that absurd times breed absurd art and that this style of theatre aims to help us translate and reflect upon:
“The absurdity of life itself, the choices we make, the language we speak, the jobs we have, and the old constructs we unthinkingly obey.”
Theatre of Heaven & Hell’s latest show, Tom Stoppard’s If You’re Glad, I’ll Be Frank, aims to do exactly that. Inspired by a conversation overheard by the writer, the play is, according to Clements:
“A satirical look at man’s servitude to the clock! Posing the question: are we truly governed by time? It’s an absurd and heartfelt look at how we live our lives by our own constructions, our own menial jobs and our adherence to a strict schedule based on time.”
Since forming in 2015 Clements and fellow actor Darren Rustom have expanded Theatre of Heaven & Hell to a company of nine members, established a regular audience and have a host of positive reviews to show for it. This is their sixth show together as a company and Clements describes their collaborative rehearsal process, in which they play to “each other’s strengths and rhythms” with a clear aim in mind of what they want their audiences to take away from the performance.
“We want audiences to leave the theatre thinking about the play in the same way we feel when we first read it; like they have seen a rarity, a forgotten gem by a known writer, and in a pub theatre no less.”
The company have set themselves an interesting and praiseworthy challenge; in their words they aim to be “creating valuable, high-quality theatre for fringe prices” whilst also reviving “forgotten absurdist gems”, pieces that would not ordinarily be expected to be found in a pub theatre perhaps. But they are more than capably rising to meet that challenge and, consequently, the company shows no signs of stopping with their membership (due to expand) and their ethos is set to continue.
“We are looking forward to seeing what the future holds with some brand new writing expanding our repertoire and championing some all-21st century absurdist plays… embarking on projects that bring new absurdist writing to the fringe.”
Theatre of Heaven & Hell stand ready to welcome, enlighten and confront. By allowing the past to deconstruct the future, this is a company that simultaneously invites and informs their audience through entertainment. And although the form may be absurd, their message is not.
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