Festival ensures Samuel Beckett isn’t a safe bet

By exploring his radio, television and prose work on stage, the festival ensures that Beckett isn’t a safe bet
The rocking chair listening chamber of All That Fall. Picture: Ros KavanaghThe rocking chair listening chamber of All That Fall. Picture: Ros Kavanagh
The rocking chair listening chamber of All That Fall. Picture: Ros Kavanagh

THE past 30 years have seen a slow transformation in the staging of the works of Samuel Beckett. This autumn Waiting For Godot, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, which packed theatres in 2009, will reprise on Broadway, but that’s just one example.

Once regarded, despite his literary merit, as bleak, difficult and the preserve of an intellectual elite, Beckett has become a hit at the box office.

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At least part of the credit for this must go to the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Under the driving force of director Michael Colgan, now 30 years in the post, it has become one of the leading producers of Beckett in the world. Colgan has organised six Beckett festivals at the Gate, attracting actors such as John Hurt, Michael Gambon and Ralph Fiennes, and has taken his productions of Beckett to New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and Beijing. “When we started out doing Beckett work, all of it was what producers would call high risk,” he says. “Now, if you are doing Waiting For Godot on the West End with a couple of famous names, somebody could quite justifiably accuse you of being safe.”

However, he adds that there is some way to go if audiences are to appreciate the full range of Beckett’s work, not just the greatest hits. For this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, in partnership with Dublin theatre company Pan Pan and supported by Culture Ireland, he has put together a Beckett programme with a difference. None of the five works being staged was written for the theatre: Eh Joe, which features Michael Gambon, is a television play; Embers and All That Fall are radio plays, broadcast on the BBC in the 1950s; First Love and I’ll Go On (the latter performed by Barry McGovern, who gained five star reviews at the festival last year for his adaptation of Beckett’s novel Watt) are adapted from prose works. There will also be a day of film screenings and a lecture-performance by Pan Pan of the abstract television piece, Quad.

Colgan believes this collection of works demonstrates how much of an innovator Beckett was when it came to technology. “People don’t think of him like that, but I think he was some sort of pioneer of technology. He was interested in all of it. When he wrote Krapp’s Last Tape, the reel-to-reel had only just been invented. He wrote for television and, of course, brilliantly wrote for radio. He did a silent movie (called Film) with Buster Keaton. God knows what he might have done with iPhones and iPads, and he might well have been the one to do it.”

It’s not about technology, it’s a mindset: Beckett pushed at the limits of any medium in which he worked. Eh Joe, broadcast in 1966, is radical even today. In it, a middle-aged man is preparing to go to bed alone in a spartan room when he is taunted by an off-stage female voice, perhaps his conscience, perhaps one of the many women he has wronged. The play is 28 minutes long, and the woman is the only speaker. The stage version is the brainchild of Canadian film director Atom Egoyan. “Eh Joe is probably, of all the theatre I’ve presented in 30 years at the Gate, the piece that I’m most proud to be associated with,” says Colgan. “I think it’s a piece of perfection.”

It took time to secure the rights to adapt Eh Joe for the stage from the Beckett estate. Beckett himself was cautious about any deviation from his detailed production notes and his oeuvre is still managed with care – one reason there is so little experimentation with the way his works are staged. But Colgan believes that Beckett, whom he met in Paris in 1986 and continued to visit until his death in 1989, would give his blessing to the Gate’s projects. “He gave me permission to do I’ll Go On and we talked about it when we met. I don’t think he’d have a problem with projects like First Love and Eh Joe.”

In 2000, Colgan produced a Beckett on Film season, working with leading actors and directors to create new film versions of all 19 stage plays: David Mamet directed Harold Pinter in Catastrophe; Alan Rickman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliet Stevenson were the three voices in Play, directed by Anthony Minghella; artist Damien Hirst directed Breath. The idea ruffled the feathers of some Beckett purists. “There were people who told me I shouldn’t do it,” says Colgan. “But I think everybody agrees that they were right to make the film [of Tennessee Williams’ play] A Streetcar Named Desire, I think we’re glad they did, the world got to see how great that is. Beckett was interested in film, I think he wanted his work to be filmed.”

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Pan Pan, which is one of Ireland’s most celebrated experimental theatre companies, tackled Beckett for the first time in 2011 when they created a stage version of the radio play, All That Fall. They are not known for their reverence to text, previous works including a version of Hamlet which features an on-stage audition for the main part and a live Great Dane, Oedipus Rex with a rock band, and Synge’s The Playboy Of The Western World set in a Beijing barber shop with an all-Chinese cast. But director Gavin Quinn has no problem about approaching Beckett’s work with exactitude.

“It is a fixed text, but there is also room for creativity, imagination and for all the detail and skill that’s necessary to make theatre work,” he says, describing their approach as “winds blowing gently through the [Beckett] museum”. “We thought it was important for us to take on this famous Irish writer, that we would have something to add to the production of Beckett plays. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s a team of people coming to Beckett and trying to bring it to an audience in our particular way.”

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Pan Pan’s versions retain the sense of Embers and All That Fall as radio plays, offering an intensified experience of Beckett’s texts. The audience for All That Fall – about the journey of 70-year-old Maddy Rooney through the Dublin suburbs where Beckett grew up – enter a specially designed “listening chamber” where each has their own rocking chair. The recording, made over a period of several weeks, with some of Ireland’s finest actors, uses today’s sound and lighting technology to create a listening experience which is both communal and intimate.

As radio works go, both are highly experimental. Beckett was one of a group of writers, which also included Pinter and Louis MacNeice, who were pushing the boundaries of radio. “There was a limited period when they thought that the radio could be about more than just information and news, it could be an art form,” says Quinn. “Beckett’s work kick-started the BBC Radiophonics Workshop (which developed ways to alter sound before the synthesiser was invented). “There would be no Doctor Who soundtrack without these Beckett plays.”

Embers, largely in the voice of Henry, sitting on a beach sharing his half-finished stories, memories, imaginings and delusions, is arguably a bigger challenge to adapt. “It is definitely a progression from All That Fall,” says Quinn. “It really captures the sense of the self, or different selves, the inner voices, the conscious and subconscious. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to sit there in 1959 and listen to that.”

In Pan Pan’s production, the two actors perform live inside a four-metre-high wooden sculpture of a human skull built by artist Andrew Clancy. “The audience won’t see them, though at times they might get a sense of a presence,” says Quinn “It’s a collaboration of sculpture and light and sound design. These elements come together to create a way of making the play effective for an audience, but it’s not an adaptation or a new version, it is exactly Embers.”

He says it is almost as if Pan Pan, now more 20 years old, feels ready to take on Beckett. “It’s about us confronting ourselves with the experience of Beckett and then, we hope, passing it on to the audience so they can confront it too. It’s almost like it took us about 20 years to think about it and then we decided to do it. You need to feel: ‘Yeah, this is something we can really get our teeth into.’”

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