Marriage, or co-habitation, as we understand it in modern society, is the most demanding of all relationships. More so because it is entered into willingly for a greater cause, being love.
Sharing our life and our space with one other person, including grumpy mornings, stressed evenings in which work deadlines loom, midnight insomnia, Sunday boredom, the trials of children, worries over money, etc. have no equal for bringing the other person’s faults into focus and raising the spectre of our own failings.
Which is why, contrary to the romantic notion of ‘happily ever after’, marriage (or committed co-habitation) is an anvil upon which our personalities are beaten into a more pleasing shape with the tongs of introspection and hammer of critical observation. It is a relationship within which the desire to love and be loved pushes us to overcome the barriers to self-awareness that could otherwise have been avoided, or at least postponed.
Much of this is a paraphrase of Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love, a philosophical interrogation of marriage. Halfway through this book, I went to watch Chasing Chairs at the Market Theatre.
The blurb for Chasing Chairs, a play written and recently reworked by Sue Pam-Grant and DJ Grant, states: “Chasing Chairs is a window on the relationship of a refined and artistic couple poised on the cusp of both middle age and a sometimes-fragile sense of a shifting of the previous certainties of their lives in a time defined by contestation over the validity of perceptions of truth or reality”. (Yes, I also started getting lost after ‘shifted’)
With de Botton on my bedside table, experience of the chasing chairs phenomenon (a certain fondness having developed for it), and knowledge of the middle age shift the play promises to elucidate, I was looking forward to a work that would delve into the awkward corners of our humanity and perhaps present an insightful view on the challenges inherent in committed relationships.
I was disappointed.
Its a very attractive play, visually. Beyond Michael Maxwell’s lighting, there’s the wallpaper projections that change with every scene (there are many), the furniture, the poetic dances that verge on physical theatre during the transitions, and the symbolism within elements of the set that are great to look at. It sounds good too, with a soundtrack out of the ‘60s and ‘70s that includes Stevie Wonder’s best funk and Aretha Franklin’s awhoop version of Natural Woman. But it lacked depth. It was, to riff on Aretha, a violin-strings-and-chorus-girls kinda play rather than the the gut-wrenching raw Nina Simone soul I was hoping for.
Not to say there weren’t great moments – Aretha is certainly stirring – such as the coffee scene in which Chi Mhende as Kat and Theo Landey as Simon talk completely past one another, concluded with a statement from Kat which shows exactly how long they have actually been living past each other. But such moments are left hanging as they shift to a new scene.
None of the many moments or conversations, neither tender, angry, frustrated nor deeply sad, go anywhere. They’re observations really, like diary entries in which each day stands separate and unconnected to the previous or the next.
There is an increasing sense of misunderstanding though. Which is possibly the point, a technique that reveals the reality of many marriages; there is rarely a breakthrough or crucial moment. Most of us just get better at living separate lives under the same roof, doing our best to at least make them look pretty.
Could be Chasing Chairs just isn’t the play I was wanting it to be, remaining plagued by questions: Why is Simon such an unimaginative control freak and through what crucible does he discover his creativity, as indicated in the closing scene? And what drives Kat to fill their life with the clutter of objects? What hole is she trying to fill?
There are allusions, I wanted to dive in.
It didn’t help that it was hard to believe a word Landey said, it all came from his head. He also didn’t look in his mid-forties, although in reality he’s not far off. Mhende, on the other hand, was a lot more centered. While it was also a bit of a stretch to see her as 39, it could be done, and the fact that she appeared to mean what she said helped. She was present, whereas Landey seemed to be imagining what it might be like to be Simon.
The result is that the characters written by Pam-Grant and Grant were irritating despite flashes of wit. Like the play, they’re pretty. There’s no alcoholism, no extra-marital interests, no ill-health, no status anxiety, no smoking, no vices, not even any concerns over money. They can afford therapy, for chrissakes. The only issues they have are those of the intellect. She’s a frustrated artist, he’s an architect who desires order and solidity. Which is a fantastic springboard for a dive into philosophical waters. Instead, Pam-Grant and Grant slip into the shallow end and do an attractive breast stroke across a black chasm. Without hardly getting their hair wet. It felt smug.
On the other hand, perhaps unlike Kat who gets lost in the recognition of herself in a painting in the therapist’s room, I didn’t like seeing a portrayal of myself.
Chasing Chairs is at the Market Theatre until 6 August. Book here.
Authors: Sue Pam-Grant and DJ Grant
Lighting Design: Michael Maxwell
Director, Set & Costume Design: Sue Pam-Grant
AV Design: Jurgen Meekel
Scenic Painter: Stella Olivier
AV Operator: Siyabonga Nkosi
Stage Manager: Bongani Motsepe
Chi Mhende as Kat
Theo Landey as Simon