Review: Beckett's Shorts ~ theatre notes

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Review: Beckett's Shorts

Beckett Shorts: Breath, Not I, That Time, Rockaby, A Piece of Monologue, by Samuel Beckett, directed by André Bastian, designed by Peter Mumford, lighting by Stelios Karagiannis, with Uschi Felix and Dion Mills. La Mama @ the Courthouse, until April 25.

folly -
folly for to -
for to -
what is the word -
folly from this -
all this -
folly from all this -
given -
folly given all this -
seeing -
folly seeing all this -
this -
what is the word -
this this -
this this here -

What is the Word, Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett is such a monument that some people don't even bother looking. The name itself is a mantra, and will do to represent an idea of art - and particularly theatre - that is, well, terribly important and everything but really (as Joanna Murray-Smith claimed in her play Ninety last year) only the province of pretentious undergraduates. That craggy, beautiful face, so beloved of photographers, peers out through the moss of reverence, ascetic, stern, sceptical, strangely neutral, neither judging nor apologetic, a forbidding icon of modernism swept under the bright, ephemeral trash of our neurotic, apocalyptic culture.

My feeling is that is if you're uninterested in Beckett, you're uninterested in art. And yet of all artists, he is surely the least compulsory: no one took more responsibility for his writing - poems, prose, criticism, plays - while making the least claims for it. "I produce an object," he said of his plays. "What people make of it is not my concern." He might have agreed with the poet Paul Celan, who said that his work was "a message in a bottle, sent out in the - not always greatly hopeful - belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps". Beckett's uncompromising, strangely tender bleakness has the kind of truthfulness which makes him, of all playwrights, the least biddable to the commercial vulgarities of theatre.

Two decades after his death, he remains a radical challenge. His longer plays - Endgame, Waiting for Godot, Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days - are regularly produced, but the core of his thinking about theatre occurs in his shorter plays, which are very seldom performed. To which end, anyone interested in doing more than squinting at Ubuweb videos of Billie Whitelaw or who is feeling restless with the patchily brilliant DVD of Beckett on Film should book themselves into La Mama's Courthouse Theatre this instant, where André Bastian's production of five of his short plays elegantly realises his stern genius.

It's a demanding evening in many ways: 90 minutes of Beckett is like four hours of anyone else. None of these plays, aside from the 30-second Breath, is designed to be part of a long evening and were mostly first performed on their own: Not I at the Royal Court in 1973, That Time (with Footfalls) again at the Royal Court in 1976, Rockaby at the Centre for Theatre Research in Buffalo, New York in 1981 and A Piece of Monologue at La Mama New York in 1979. But it's well worth the spiritual exhaustion to witness these soul sculptures, these fragments of being that dwell in the outer limits of mundane human pain, the anguish of the present. They are, in the most complex and unforgiving sense, beautiful works of theatre.

In 2006, I saw the exhibition Samuel Beckett: A Passion for Painting at the National Gallery in Dublin. It was revelatory. I already knew, from reading his essays on Jack B Yeats and others, that Beckett is an inimitable and deeply literate critic of visual art; what I hadn't realised was how profoundly it infused his practice in theatre. The exhibition displayed the paintings Beckett saw as a young man, when, as he said, he "haunted" the gallery, along with works he owned and fragments of letters and other writings which demonstrated his deep knowledge and love of visual art. Billie Whitelaw's striking pose in Footfalls, for instance, with her splayed hands crossed over her chest, is taken directly from a mediaeval painting, The Assumption of St Mary Magdalene, by Don Silvestro dei Ghererducci.

It seems obvious once realised. The short plays exist somewhere between installation and poetry, their strict aesthetic bringing the meditative rhythms of visual art into performance. Not I focuses a light on the mouth of the speaker, with another figure standing to the side, mysteriously cowled and dimly lit, generating a disturbing sculpting of dislocated human form, the "she" of the monologue traumatically displaced from her own body. Rockaby and That Time are both recorded voices, the performers motionless listeners, the minimalist power of their gestures amplified by their stillness. In A Piece of Monologue, the white-haired figure stands front stage, illuminated by a single light that throws his face into cadaverous relief, like an ancient statue or a figure from a Noh play. These serial alienations focus us insistently, even painfully, on the present: the present of performance as much as the fictional present of Beckett's characters (or, perhaps more accurately, souls).

Beckett's figures emerge from darkness, melancholy, afraid, resigned, alone. Always alone. In these plays the dead speak from their long silence, the beauty or torment or desperate mundanity of their lives unutterably absent, vanished into an unreclaimable and fragmented past, attenuated by the fragility of human memory. What remains is an unendurable now, a neurotic, unable circling of trauma, as in Not I, or unbearable memory, as in That Time, recognitions of existential solitude in which the self is all there is, unredeemed and unconsolable. And yet in this recognition is an implacable tenderness: I've always thought Beckett the most compassionate of playwrights. There is a true compassion in recognising the worst; it is a relief, in a world where the worst is all around us but is never admitted.

Bastian has framed these plays with admirable intelligence. The evening opens with Breath, written for Kenneth Tynan's revue O Calcutta!, a 30-second, actorless theatrical sculpture, which acts as a kind of entree. And there is a little sally at the notorious restrictions of the Beckett Estate: the instructions that come with the permissions are projected onto the stage. Peter Mumford's set is brilliant in its simplicity: it consists of several lengths of black cloth (on which further text - footnotes, titles - is projected) that are suspended from the ceiling. They act as scrims, becoming invisible where needed, providing a subtle, barely discernible barrier between performer and audience. Each play is introduced by the two actors, Uschi Felix and Dion Mills, who read out the production details and stage directions, and the show is punctuated also by deftly chosen readings of Beckett's poem What is the Word. As the actors read Beckett's detailed directions, they gather the necessary costumes and wigs and props, so the plays are literally constructed before our eyes. And then the lighting (a completely beautiful design by Stelios Karagiannis) shifts and the play begins. And suddenly we see why these instructions are so precise. Genius is, as Gertrude Stein said, an infinite capacity for taking pains.

But the key to this production is the performances. To be perfectly honest, I don't know how these two actors achieve what they do: Beckett's pieces might be short, but that doesn't mean that they are small. Performing just one would be a mighty challenge: each actor performs two each. The works balance, in that each has one recorded monologue and one spoken. They perform with disciplined restraint, so that the smallest movement, the slightest gesture, becomes weighted with significance. Uschi Felix's performance of Not I, her mouth becoming a strange, alien animal floating in the blackness of the stage, is simply extraordinary. And I'll not forget Dion Mills performing A Piece of Monologue, straining under the dim light, clutching his white nightgown, his white hair streaming down from the light, the words emerging from his body as from a threshold of darkness, a cry from the edge of existence.

You have to see these pieces in the theatre to understand that they are nothing but theatre: theatre cut back to its most essential elements, the body in space, the breath, the word, light and darkness, inescapable transience. I was glad I was there.

Pictures: Top: Uschi Felix in Rockaby; Dion Mills in A Piece of Monologue. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

La Mama is also presenting Waiting for Godot at La Mama, directed by Laurence Strangio, which is on until May 3.


Cal Samson said...

A magnificent review of a difficult writer to talk about.

I have tickets for tonight, and now I really can't wait.

George Hunka said...

I'm sorry I can't be there. I've been going over the shorter plays myself lately here.

Poor benighted me, left with those squinty videos on YouTube. I'd especially liked to have seen Breath, the Damien Hirst film being what it is, but this sounds like an interesting way of doing a play which seems, in part, to be Beckett's little prank at his own expense.

Alison Croggon said...

Mephistopholes, many thanks; and I hope you thought it as special as I did.

Hi George - yes, I've been following your pieces on Beckett, which are fab - I hadn't realised, btw, that dialogue was missing from Come and Go on the dvd - gosh!! I think it a beautiful realisation but changing the end was strange... It's a real shame you can't pop into La Mama, because I know you'd enjoy them. And yes, the staging of Breath was a very witty way of approaching it.

Duncan Graham said...


I won't get to see this production but it is really inspiring to hear you speak about theatre in those terms Alison, with such love for the art at all levels. Just pulled the plays off my shelf for what might be, compared to seeing them, vicarious pleasure. A telling reminder of why we participate, at any level, in the theatre. Thanks for the Friday afternoon pep-talk!


Chance M. said...


I've been reading your blog for some time, and I find your reviews consistently perceptive and well-phrased. As someone living in NYC, I rarely get to see the shows you cover. But visiting Theatre Notes makes me feel that much closer to them. Thanks for all you do, especially for focusing on the more difficult, experimental work.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Duncan and Chance.

Unknown said...

yes, spot on as (nearly!) always, alison, many thanks. your comments on beckett's compassion are on the money, too, and i have to admit i'd never FELT his compassion especially greatly, but found it so strong in the performance of 'rockabye' (with its beautiful tender reading of the text in the voiceover) that i was moved to tears -- not an easy thing to do to me, outside of music! 'compassion' was the very word i used afterwards talking to sean o'callaghan (another talented irish walnut) and anthony ley afterwards. another thing that also amazed me was the way the two actors could go so (seemingly) easily from being 'themselves' reading the stage directions into inhabiting the souls that speak their parts in the pieces they performed live -- 'not i' and 'a piece of monologue. i don't know how they do THAT! (but then, i'm a bad actor...) also followed your links to the superfluities redux site where george hunka had a link to a youtube clip of beckett speaking...a revelation to me just to see the (yes, absurdly revered) man speak, and especially so close to his death. seemed pretty sprightly...damn good to put a voice to that face.
matt h