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Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Beckett’

I’m fond of a bit of Beckett, something to fire your imagination and stretch your brain. I enjoy my regular trips to the Old Vic Theatre, one of London’s truly great theatre spaces. Director Richard Jones has long been a favourite, though he’s done more opera of late. I’ve much admired how Daniel Radcliffe has managed his post-Potter stage career and liked the three performances I’d seen before this – Equus, The Cripple of Inishmaan and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Yet I left the Old Vic disappointed.

The double-bill opens with Rough For Theatre II, a rarely performed and arguably unfinished 25-minute piece where two suited men are at desks in a room where a man is standing on the window ledge poised to commit suicide. B (Alan Cumming) reads about his life from files, as if they are justifying or judging whether the act should proceed. A (Radcliffe) comments, smirks, appears to be in charge. They have come from other suicides and will continue to more. It’s intriguing, if slight, but my biggest problem with it was the contrast between A and B, or Radcliffe and Cumming, I’m not sure which. The difference between them didn’t really make sense to me.

The main event, Endgame, isn’t a long play, but it is three times the length of the curtain-raiser, and at 75 minutes outstayed its welcome; I hadn’t felt that on the two previous occasions I’d seen it. Hamm (Cumming) is confined to a chair, waited on by his servant Clov (Radcliffe). They have a seemingly endless repetitive ritual that involves Clov climbing ladders to look out of the high windows and commenting on the world outside and fetching and carrying for Hamm. Their relationship is brittle, Hamm waiting to die, Clov waiting to be free. Hamm’s parents occasionally make an appearance, popping up from their place in adjacent dustbins. Radcliffe brings an expert physicality to his role, but his youth seemed at odds with the character.

Despite both being end-of-life plays, to me they didn’t belong together, and the theatre was too big for both. I liked Cumming’s two characterisations and the casting of Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks was luxurious indeed. On the three previous occasions, I felt Radcliffe had chosen roles that suited him, but here they don’t, which does slightly derail his otherwise impressive short stage career.

This was my second Beckett this year and I’m afraid the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre, home of the first, upstaged the Old Vic.

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There’s something wonderful about visiting a 70-seat underground theatre a stones throw from Piccadilly Circus, where you have to cross the stage to get to the loo, to see four world class actors, directed by the man who ran both the RSC and NT, in three Samuel Beckett plays – for a few pounds more than going to the cinema around the corner. I love this city.

Beckett wrote twenty-two stage plays, many of them one act, some as short as fifteen minutes. You don’t always (ever?) entirely understand them, but you can bask in the language and exercise your brain finding meaning. Always fascinating and intriguing, never dull, somewhat addictive. I’ve seen about two-thirds of them. Another two will come along in three weeks with four more great actors in a theatre with 997 more seats!

The first of this triple-bill is Krapps Last Tape, where a man sits at a table reading his diary of some thirty years before, digging out, listening to and occasionally commenting on the meticulously indexed reel-to-reel tapes which contain the audio record of his 40th year. Oh, and he eats bananas. I’ve been lucky enough to see John Hurt and Harold Pinter, and now James Hayes in this fascinating memory play.

In Eh Joe, a man sits on his bed in silence listening to a woman’s voice in his head, his face telling you everything you need to know about his feelings as he listens to her. You can’t take your eyes off Niall Buggy, so expressive, whilst the great Becket interpreter and scholar Lisa Dwan voices the woman. This was written for TV. I first saw it on stage with Michael Gambon in a theatre 10 times the size but watching Niall Buggy, a few feet away, his face projected live on the wall behind him, was mesmerising, a way more intimate experience. Another memory piece, looking back.

The best is saved until last. The Old Tune, a radio play adapted from a Robert Pinget stage play, where two men in their seventies meet one Sunday morning and sit on a bench reminiscing, as the noisy traffic passes by. They have clear recollections, though they often differ, a source of irritation and indignation for them and humour for the audience. Memory again, but lighter and funnier and performed to perfection by Niall Buggy as Gorman and David Threlfall as Cream, a thirty minute gem that fully justifies its move from radio to stage and will stay with me forever.

These three plays belong together as if they were written as companion pieces. Though each was originally in a different form, they were written only eight years apart in the late 50s / early 60s. Trevor Nunn stages them beautifully, with help from set and costume designer Louie Whitemore, sound designer Max Pappenheim and lighting designer David Howe.

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I think I would best describe this intriguing play by Ed Thomas as Samuel Beckett meets Dylan Thomas. It’s dialogue is poetic and it’s story is obscure, something I often turn against, but here I found it rather captivating.

John Daniel and his wife Noni are the last inhabitants of Bear Ridge. They’ve had to close their butchers shop. The post office has stopped delivering mail and their phone line has been cut. Their shop assistant & slaughter-man Ifan William has stayed with them. We don’t exactly know why Bear Ridge is being deserted, though it appears to be the result of a war of some sorts. Fighter planes occasionally fly overhead and an army man, The Captain, pays a visit.

Their conversation ranges from their plight to reminiscences about a happier past and reflections on tragedy, when we learn that John Daniel & Noni’s son, and Ifan William’s best friend, went to university to study philosophy but was killed because he spoke ‘the old language’. The Captain, a clearly tortured soul, has his own tragic story to tell. I’m still trying to piece it all together, with an intriguing note in the play-script suggesting it is ‘semi-autobiographical’.

Rhys Ifans and Rakie Ayola are both terrific as the couple at the centre of the story, with fine support from Sion Daniel Young as Ifan William and Jason Hughes as The Captain. Cai Dyfan’s design is hugely atmospheric, the exit of the walls representing the decline, as is the music and sound design. The Royal Court’s AD Vicky Featherstone co-directs with the playwright.

National Theatre Wales has gone through a difficult time of late, but it’s good to see them back, and in London, with this Royal Court co-production. I suspect I will be processing it for some time yet.

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This was trailed as Caryl Churchill’s first full-length play in over 20 years. It isn’t. It’s another obtuse 50 minute miniature. Apart from providing work for four excellent 60/70-something actresses, it’s hard to see what else it contributes. It’s feint praise to say it’s a better than her last ‘miniature’, Here We Go, at the National last year (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/12/11/here-we-go-evening-at-the-talk-house).

Mrs Jarrett pops into Sally’s garden when she’s passing. She joins Sally, making inconsequential small-talk with Lena & Vi about the local shops and a whole host of other things; typical old people stuff, looking back (I should know!). We return to the garden with the same four ladies in a row, in chairs, a number of times. In between, Mrs Jarrett appears stage front, framed by red tubes and crackling wire, to tell us about some catastrophes, which become increasingly implausible (and tiresome) as they progress. We learn that Lena has served six years for killing her husband. They sing Da Doo Ron Ron. Sally and Lena each have a bit of a monologue and Mrs Jarrett ends the play with a bit of a rant, repeating the same phrase over and over again – the verbal equivalent of the undressing at the end of Here We Go, but mercifully shorter. 

I’m not entirely sure what Churchill is trying to say; perhaps that we carry on regardless or oblivious of the catastrophes happening around us and / or what it’s like growing old. Playwrights often become minimalist in their later years (Beckett, Pinter…) yet they continue to occupy their place on a pedestal. I sometimes think they have lost their mojo but no-one has the nerve to say so. After 20 years of plays like this I think that’s where I’m at with Caryl Churchill and I think it’s time I gave up hoping for a return to the form that gave us plays like Serious Money.

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Continuing my never ending, and I suspect pointless, search to understand Beckett with the Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot at the Barbican Theatre just six weeks after seeing their Endgame in Sydney, also with Hugo Weaving. At three hours, it’s my longest Godot, but it’s also probably the best.

Each production finds something different and this one is funnier and crueler. It’s set in some huge abandoned industrial landscape. Vladimir and Estragon pass the time over two days waiting for Godot, interrupted only by two visits from the blind Pozzo and his dumb ‘slave’ Lucky and two from a boy bringing a message from Godot that he won’t make it until tomorrow. They feel a sense of achievement when they fill time successfully and a sense of hopelessness when they don’t. The attempted diversions are many, but time still drags them down. We see the warmth of companionship and friendship along the way, but pointlessness and despair predominate.

There is much more physicality to the performances, whether it be the pantomime of removing and replacing shoes, changing hats, falling down and picking themselves and others up or the poor treatment of Lucky. They use the vastness of the stage well, but occasionally sit on the front providing intimate moments too. It’s funnier but it’s also more desperate. It seemed more full of contradictions, more expansive and more poignant. Director Andrew Upton suggests it’s creation was particularly collaborative as he had to take the helm at a late stage and somehow you really felt that.

Unlike The Elephant Man last week, but like Endgame six weeks ago, this is no star vehicle. A lot of people are clearly there for Weaving, and he doesn’t disappoint, but they get four fine performances and a much better, if obtuse, play. I’m used to seeing Philip Quast in musicals, so its a treat to see him give such a terrific performance as Pozzo. Richard Roxburgh is Weaving’s equal and the chemistry between them is palpable. Luke Mullins makes so much of Lucky, lurching around the stage and almost falling off twice.

For once my front row cheap seat was a bonus, giving me a close-up view of such thrilling acting. I’m not that much wiser, but it was a theatrical feast nonetheless.

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Playwright Enda Walsh has always been a bit, well more than a bit, Beckettian, but here he has ‘created’ (you can’t really say ‘wrote’) an odd, absurd, surreal ‘piece’ (you can’t really say ‘play’) that’s fully fledged Beckett, in spirit if not restraint. It was a very long 100 minutes and having invested that much of my life in it I’m disinclined to invest a lot more reviewing it. I’ve seen a handful of Walsh’s plays since Disco Pigs in 1997 and it really is a trajectory much like Beckett; diminishing returns. I think this might be my last.

The only reason for seeing it is two virtuoso performances from Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi – but it comes at a price. For the first 20-30 mins I was intrigued and fascinated, but that soon turned to irritation and then to boredom and eventually to fantasies of a gin & tonic in the comfort of my own home. For some inexplicable reason, though I had not connected with the piece emotionally, the conclusion was like a wave of sadness blowing from the Lyttleton stage.

Two men race around the stage dressing and undressing, throwing things (and themselves) around, making a mess, uttering seemingly meaningless dialogue and generally getting on your tits. They appeared to be in some death waiting room and we eventually meet the grim reaper, Stephen Rea, a cool-as-cucumber chain smoker who appears to suggest only one of them come forward. Ballyturk seems to be a place outside – we hear voices of the residents, there appear to be drawings of them on the back wall (which get darts thrown at them) and our two protagonists may be impersonating them occasionally. Who knows? Who cares?

Jamie Vartan’s set includes mysteries like inaccessible cupboards and draws, a cuckoo clock with a life of its own, a kitchenette in one corner and a shower(ette) in the other and a back wall that lifts and lowers to reveal Stephen Rea’s character in his world. It gets well and truly roughed up. Walsh also directs, so there’s no-one else to blame. The two lead actors give it their all, but for me that isn’t enough.

If this is what it’s like inside an Irish brain, I’m glad I’m Welsh!

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This was the first Beckett play I ever saw; 35 years ago, before I left Bristol for London. I’ve seen it three times since (including this one) but it’s one of those plays where your first time will probably never be repeated. A tour de force for an actress – for me June Barrie, Rosaleen Linehan, Fiona Shaw & now Juliet Stevenson – it’s still, somewhat astonishingly, more radical than anything else current.

Winnie spends the first act buried up to her waist and the second up to her neck. In previous productions, it has been a free-standing mound; in Vicki Mortimer’s striking design there is a cliff behind and an occasional light avalanche of scree. It glistens a little like gold in the bright lighting. Though we also see and hear Winnie’s husband Willie occasionally, it’s a virtual monologue as she empties her handbag and obsessively lays out its contents, including a gun, in front of her. The dialogue seems pointless, with more than a touch of sexual innuendo, though nothing is ever pointless in Beckett, just obtuse.

In this production, the contrast between the light(ish) first act and the somewhat bleak second act is greater than I remember. Winnie seemed louder and more shrill, particularly when she is barking instructions at Willie. The infamous bell has become a loud buzz. They stay frozen in character at the end as the audience applaud, presumably until we’ve all left the auditorium. This is my first exposure to director Natalie Abrahami and she makes as much impact as her former Gate colleague Carrie Cracknell did with A Dool’s House here last year.

It probably isn’t the best I’ve seen, but it’s great to see it one more time and Juliet Stevenson makes the role her own. David Beames has to take a back seat, well hole, until his big moment in the light, dressed to kill as it were, or as it maybe, at the end.

Still ground-breaking after all these years.

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