Beckett Trilogy at the Jermyn Street Theatre review ****(and some other at-home Beckett stuff)

Beckett Trilogy: Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe, The Old Tune

Jermyn Street Theatre, 4th February 2020

Fragments: Beckett by Brook – Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither , Come and Go – VIMEO, Bouffes du Nord – 26th March 2020

Endgame/Rough for Theatre II – Digital Theatre, Old Vic – 9th April 2020

Having put in countless theatre hours over the last few years the Tourist feels ready to get to grips with another of the “writers who changed theatre” in the form of one Samuel Beckett. Anyone with a passing interest in culture generally, and theatre particularly, is going to have encountered the great Irishman, but, to the uninitiated like me his reputation is fearsome. Still no time like the present.

Especially when the equally fearsome Peter Brooke, similarly ascetic and similarly a Parisian expat, has kindly posted up a recording of his (and Marie-Helene Estienne’s) production of Fragments: Beckett by Brook from the Bouffes du Nord in 2018 (and last in London in 2008). I have had a couple of cracks at Mr Brooke and Ms Estienne’s oeuvre with mixed success, Battlefield at the Young Vic, their take on The Mahabharata, and The Prisoner at the NT, both works of elongated, and exacting, beauty. Fragments comprises five short pieces by Beckett, Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither and Come and Go, performed by, drum roll please, Kathryn Hunter, Jos Houben and Marcello Magni. Jacques Lecoq alumni, and all round stage acting royalty, especially when it comes to the tough, avant garde-y stuff.

Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Beckett, in addition to posing questions about language, memory, purpose, mortality, despair, isolation, confinement, observation, connection, indeed, the whole futility, with tenacity, of human existence and nature-of-the-self gig, liked a laugh, especially of the mordant, and/or gallows absurd, kind. Which is what PB and the three actors mine in Fragments. It isn’t too much of a leap from this to Python. Honestly. Of course it helps that Belgian actor Jos Houben is peerless as a physical comedy theatre actor, that Kathryn Hunter is the very definition of “shape-shifter”, (whatever you do do not miss an opportunity to see her on stage, most recently in the RSC Timon of Athens), and that Marcello Magni was a founder member of Complicite, (the other two are regular collaborators), about as innovative a theatre company as it gets. Oh, and he was also the voice of Pingu.

Rough for Theatre I is probably the trickiest customer on the bill. A blind beggar, busking on his fiddle, teams up with another chap who has lost a leg. Both reference past lovers/carers/family. They might be abandoned. They search for food. Mutual support turns to annoyance and, maybe, violence. A lot of the classic Beckett stuff is on show, a couple of cranky fellas bound in uneasy interdependence. But it doesn’t quite persuade and turns into a long, old 20 minutes.

Rockaby, with the archetypal old woman, W, in a rocking chair, the ghostly vibe, the simple, pre-recorded, dimeter verse echoing a lullaby, the hypnotic stresses and repetitions, (each of the four sections begins with “more”), the gradual withdrawal of W from the world, and her eventual death, is a work that most definitely does work. Especially in the hands, and eyes, and mouth, of Kathryn Hunter. There isn’t much here to express, but express she does, packing all manner of emotion into less than 10 minutes. Fuck life as W says. But do it gently.

Act Without Words II, like its companion piece, and the likes of Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape was written ion the 1950s, but unlike them it is a mime piece. Two fellas, of course, emerge consecutively from sacks on stage after being prodded by a large pole, before engaging in their, presumably daily, routines. One is chaotic, a hypochondriac, the other fastidious, a clock-watcher. A recipe for audience bemusement? You might think so from the sound of it, but, in the hands of Messrs Houten and Magni, it is hilarious, Laurel and Hardy-esque, one of the funniest things I have seen on stage. With Rockaby and now this I think I can see the attraction of Beckett.

And Come and Go only added to the attraction. Three middle-aged women, Flo, Vi and Ru, friends since childhood, Houten and Magni decked out with coats, hats and a bit of rouge, sit on a bench, natter, and then, as each moves away in turn, a whispered secret something is exchanged between the remaining pair. At the end they link hands in the “old way”, a Celtic knot. I can imagine this scenario might come across as foreboding, a reference to incipient illness or death, we don’t actually hear the secrets, but in this production it is comic, the whispers more gossipy or bitching. More Cissie and Ada (google it) than “staring into the void”. After all we all like to chide our friends behind their backs with our other friends in the guise of concern.

Neither is a poem of sorts, just 87 words, in ten lines, with apparently just 3 commas. That’s minimalism for you. It is some kind of dialectical journey, maybe to death, who knows. Kathryn Hunter can’t make its meaning clear but blimey does she make every word count.

All in all then highly recommended (it’s still on Vimeo). How all the little tragi-comic stuff can shed a light on all the big stuff which rattles around in our heads. Not, as Peter Brooke says, wall to wall despair and pessimism as Beckett reputation dictates. And showing how the best actors can reveal, even to the dubious like the Tourist, that there is more to Beckett than initially meets the eye, and ear.

On to Endgame. Or to be more precise Rough for Theatre I and then Endgame. From the Old Vic. Now my scheduled performance was a casualty of you know what but the nice people at the Old Vic offered up a filmed version of the production which I snapped up. Now, before the interruption, the draw of Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming, had ensured brisk business for something relatively challenging judging by the wait it took me to secure my favourite perch. For Endgame, Fin de partie in the original French, (the language Beckett always initially used), does jog on a bit coming in at 80 minutes. It is bracketed up there with the likes of Waiting for Godot in the Beckett canon, and, whilst the critics response to the production was decidedly mixed, there was enough to make me gently expectant.

I have to say didn’t really get on with it though. Whether this was down to play or to performance, it is difficult to say. Having now see what PR and M-HE could do with Beckett in Fragments, (and, as you will see below, what Trevor Nunn was able to serve up in his Beckett trilogy), I think the director, here Richard Jones, might have been culpable. True the director’s freedom to interpret is proscribed by the still vice-like grip exerted by the Beckett estate, demanding compliance with the great man’s stage directions, and by the stripping away of realist anchors, the lack of plot, the minimalist aesthetic and so on. Even so I still think the thematic repetition, this really is about four troubled souls going round in circles, and the skill of certain the actors, left Mr Jones only really scratching the surface.

Alan Cumming played Hamm, confined to a chair, (with a rather distracting pair of fake stick-thin beanie legs on permanent display), with a splenetic camp which at first amused but soon curdled. And Daniel Radcliffe, who to his credit, seeks out acting challenges in an almost penitent way since the screen Potter juggernaut was wound up, is similarly one-dimensional as restless servant/foundling Clov. I am afraid he does’t really seem to get with the profundity, opting for a superficial humour in word and deed. The two don’t feel that they have spent an eternity locked together. Contrast this with Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks, (with facial prosthetics which really do convince), as Magg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, living in wheelie bins downstage left. Much less to say, but by not trying to grasp for comedy that isn’t there, both convey far more .

In order to get under the surface of “life is absurd”, and “in the midst of death we are in life”, (or maybe it’s the other way round), I think I can see that creatives need to delve a bit deeper. If all we see is the outward character, like a realist play, here Hamm as childish despot “actor” doing a turn primarily for himself, or Clov as mild-mannered extra from the Ministry of Silly Walks, it just become too much hard work to listen to what Beckett was saying. I am guessing the existential bitterness at the core of Endgame really is the deal but having the confidence to see that through feels like a big ask. As Hamm says “nothing is funnier than unhappiness” but only I guess if you don’t try too hard to make it too funny in the first place. I will need to try again with the play to test the theory or to accept that it could just be that I simply don’t have the patience to see it through in which case, mea culpa.

As it happens I preferred Rough for Theatre II. Two bureaucrats, Bertrand and Morvan, are in a room assessing the evidence as to whether would be suicide Croker, (Jackson Milner standing stock still for half an hour with his back to us – bravo fella), should jump or not. There is a contrast between the two, Cumming’s Bertrand is sweary, impulsive, keen to crack on, Radcliffe’s Morvan, more measured, though indecisive. The scenario is milked for gags as it echoes the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life, Here Comes Mr Jordan and A Matter of Life and Death from the 1940s. Croker might have been rejected, he might be ill, he might be a tortured artist. The comments of the various witnesses from Croker’s life are mostly banal, only occasionally poignant or profound. The banter between B and V edges towards Shakespearean wordplay, as well as the more visible vaudeville. The end is ambiguous. It could be Pinter, which is probably why I much preferred it

Right finally to the Jermyn Street trilogy. Sorry that took so long but this is how I learn. Firstly the intimacy of the JST served these plays very well especially Krapp’s Last Tape and Eh Joe. Secondly the cast. David Threlfall, James Hayes, Niall Buggy and, even if in voice only, Lisa Dwan have the measure of Beckett. It is rare to see Lisa Dwan’s name in print without the words “foremost Beckett interpreter/scholar” appended, (Not I, the one with the mouth, is her particular Beckett party piece), though she has plenty of other heavyweight acting credits to her name in Ireland and elsewhere, as does fellow Irish actor Niall Buggy. David Threlfall is just an all round top geezer, last seen on stage as the RSC Don Quixote, who has played Beckett on screen, albeit in the hit and miss comedy series Urban Myths. James Hayes has been treading the boards for as long as the Tourist has been mortal, and collaborated with Trevor Nunn at the JST in radio play All That Fall in 2012 with Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon.

Understandably the Beckett estate rates Trevor Nunn, now 80. He is, after all, pretty much the Father of the House when it comes to theatre direction. Unlike Richard Jones whose USP is showy, scatter-gun, (though often brilliant), opera. Max Pappenheim is able to conjure up a sound design with real impact in a space he knows well and I assume David Howe, normally to be found lighting up the West End, said yes straight away when he got the Nunn call. The monochrome world, specified for Krapp’s Last Tape, persists throughout. Old age and memory is what links the three works. What four old men remember and what they forget.

Krapp’s Last Tape, from 1958, the year after Endgame, was big draw here, with James Hayes, literally, in the chair. Krapp on his 69th birthday, and sporting a natty pair of snakeskin shoes, sets out to make a tape (reel-to-reel kids, ask Grandad, though make sure it is by phone) documenting the last year and to review a similar tape he made when he was 39, made after he had returned from celebrating that birthday in the pub. This tape mocks the commentary of another tape he made in his mid twenties. He is more interested in the definition of the word “viduity” than the death of his mother. (The table is piled up with tapes, a ledger and the dictionary). Some memories annoy him, others, notably a romantic tryst in a punt, enchant him. The 39 year old is confident in the choices he has made, the 69 year old full of regret, notably in his writing. Is this his “final” tape?

Beckett was 52 when he wrote it. You can read whatever you want into it but it seems easy to just take it as autobiography and revel in the power and construction of memory. Failures in love, in work and in drink. It went through many drafts, much like our memories I suppose. The Wiki page is very helpful in fleshing out the characters, real and fictional, mentioned in the monologue and in describing Beckett’s own position at the time of writing.

I can’t pretend I was hanging on every word of James Hayes’s mesmerising performance. but that is because I ended up revisiting my own past in my mind. What better praise can I offer?

Eh Joe is pretty scary. It was SB’s first play for television, first performed in 1966 by Jack MacGowan, for whom it was written, with Sian Philips as The Voice. Joe, in his fifties, is sitting alone on his bed in dressing gown and slippers, with a camera trained on him. He gets up to check windows, curtains, door, cupboard and bed as if in fear. The camera cuts to a close-up of his face from just a metre away which slowly zooms in, nine times, through the remaining 15 minutes or so. Joe is relaxed, though confined, staring at, though not into the camera. Then the voice, here Lisa Dwan, starts hammering away at him, the recording heavily miked, accusatory, recalling their relationship and his abandoning of another woman who attempts suicide. She is the guilt-ridden voice inside his head I guess, the feminine judge of his masculine sin. He has excised the voices of his mother, father and others who may have loved him. The Voice’s words brim with violence. There is Catholic and sexual guilt aplenty. Niall Buggy, for a man who doesn’t speak, is riveting and now I get why Lisa Dwan is so well regarded. Once again it is all about the getting the rhythm and melody of the language to convey interiority.

Lisa Dwan was 12 when she saw Eh Joe on the telly. It stayed with her. I’m not surprised.

Fortunately we were then given a break before The Old Tune, which compared to the two previous plays, was a breeze. Rarely performed, it is a free translation by Beckett of a 1960 radio play, La Manivelle (The Crank) by his Swiss-French mate Robert Pinget. Niall Buggy and David Threlfall are a couple of Dublin old-timers, Gorman and Cream, shooting the breeze on, of course, a bench. They share memories, all the way back to early childhood, but can’t always agree on exactly what. It’s got some laughs.

So that’s that then. No doubt I will be back to Beckett. But for the moment, at least when the performers are on song, memories are made of this ….

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