Monday, July 03, 2006

beckett on the lake

The last time we met he said he wasn’t feeling the best – “crock”. Something was affecting his balance and he had fallen twice. I said I was sorry to hear that. “Cheer up”, he said, “I’ve written a poem for you”. “Where is it?” I’ll say it to you, only an Irishman would understand it. Then he smiled and said, ‘Ochón, ochón, dead but not gone’.

At the end of our meeting he got up to say goodbye and somehow I sensed it would be our last meeting. “I’ll walk you to your door.” No, he wanted to leave quietly, without fuss. Take it easy, I said. He held my hand in both of his and said, “you sit there and finish your coffee”. When he was halfway across the café floor he turned and said: “Michael. If I fall, don’t bother to pick me up”. The smile, and then gone.

Michael Colgan remembering Samuel Beckett in the Gate Theatre’s «Beckett on Stage | April 2006» program published during the Beckett Centenary Festival.

It seems to be my lot, like some obedient Sisyphus, to return repeatedly, hot and tired and smelling badly after a day spent slugging about the city streets, to see selected Beckett shorts. I did it in Dublin in May and again last night in Chicago.

The billing promised to be different from the shorts that we saw at the Gate as part of the Beckett Centenary celebration – there it was Play and Catastrophe (the latter written for Václav Havel and devastating) – last night, at the Theater on the Lake, it was expected to be Eh, Joe; Rough for Radio 1; and then Texts for Nothing Nos. 4, 7, and 12.

Turns out Play was on the billing too, but I had missed it when I booked the tickets.

Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if Play were not about three people in pots. Who are all sleeping together. And if it weren’t for the fact that (if you’ve seen it you know) they run through the script twice – the second time with slightly different intonations. All of this well and good if you’re a freak like me, but a bit tiresome if you just indulging a freak like me, which was the situation my husband found himself in.

Earlier, in Dublin, on the day we slugged about the city and landed finally at the Gate where Dublin’s toniest were decked out in their best to the see the show in packed house, my darlin’ companion had been particularly grumpy about how things were going (I suspect the Writer’s Museum earlier that morning had put him over the edge – later he would confirm this to be true), and so as we took our seats I debated whether or not to explain to him that we were about to see three people up to their necks in pots, their faces encrusted with mud.

I opted not to.

All in all, after the curtain came up, he took it quite well.

But that experience wasn’t enough to prevent the long look and a good humored rolling of the eyeballs when the curtains pulled apart last night to reveal, indeed, three people in pots.

I enjoyed the contrast: an American company v. an Irish company, playing the same script. The staging was strikingly different: at the Gate they brought the players to the very edge of the stage. At that proximity an intimacy is reached that makes you almost forget these people are in pots. (Although I'm not convinced that Beckett wanted us to forget.)

At the Theater on the Lake the pots were at the far rear of the stage, and they attempted to close the gap somewhat by adding a fourth player who ran the curtain and the lights and sat in the middle distance. But they were remote from us, and that remoteness was exacerbated by the lighting – the stage directions have each player being illuminated in their turn, as they speak, and last night that light came from within the pot. (The pots themselves were paper maché which made for a nice effect when illuminated from within.)

Unfortunately to have the light come from below rather than above (did the players activate it themselves?) meant that their faces were obscured by severe shadows – made worse, of course, by all that mud. We never got to see who they were, which made it a bit more difficult to care for them. At the Gate the lighting was direct and from above: we could see their humanity through the crap that covered them. The outcome was quite different.

But the most notable difference between the two performances was the delivery: at the Gate Play was a very funny show. Insightful and poignant, of course, as well – you can’t get away from a Beckett without catching a glance at the worst of ourselves, and walk away loving humanity anyway – but really very funny. And this would be an important attribute when the topic is adultery. Otherwise: Ouch.

The Chicago show was played ponderously. Not quite the same thing.

Worth the price of entry, anyway, and the sweltering conditions of the theatre (it’s a seasonal playhouse and has a summer camp feeling -- they hand out fans at the front door) meant that our stink, gleaned from an afternoon running around the Taste of Chicago, was scarcely noticed (the same, I’m sure, cannot be said about our attendance at the Gate).

Eh, Joe, by the way, was brilliant. And there’s more goodness promised throughout the year – The Curious Theatre Branch is doing nothing but Beckett until they put the season to bed.

The farther he goes the more good it does me. I don’t want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement.

He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him. He’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs. He’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy – he doesn’t give a bullock whether I buy or not – he hasn’t got his hand over his heart.

Well, I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful.

— Harold Pinter on Beckett

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