SUSAN Mansfield discovers the passion novelist and actor Michael Colgan and star of stage, television and film Barry McGovern have for Beckett
Michael Colgan is making tea. “I’ve had two girlfriends who were getting fed up of me, but they prolonged the relationship because of my tea-making skills, I’m convinced of it,” he says, as he pours water, milk. Then he proceeds to scold Barry McGovern, his contemporary and long-time collaborator, for eating all the sandwiches.
I honestly don’t think I’d have given so much of my life to [Beckett] if I didn’t like him and admire him
After 33 celebrated years at the helm of Dublin’s Gate Theatre, Colgan retired in May (“I have the bus pass!”) Among the various jobs he lined up for himself “so I wasn’t kicking stones”, he and McGovern, one of Ireland’s most distinguished actors, have set up a theatre company together. Their debut production, Krapp’s Last Tape, will open at the Edinburgh International Festival. “We resisted the temptation to call the company ‘Two Pensioners Doing Beckett’,” Colgan laughs. “Not because we don’t like people to know we’re pensioners, but because we might do some Pinter next.”
“We feel like we’re going back to student days, starting again in a way,” says McGovern. Used to the supporting infrastructure of big theatres, they are suddenly back at the grassroots, having to do everything themselves, from writing cheques to making tea. But when it comes to the work, they are masters. Colgan, who prefers to describe himself as a producer rather than a director, is highly acclaimed as a director of Beckett plays. Organising six Beckett festivals at the Gate, including the important Beckett on Film project in 1999, he has played a significant part in bringing the work of the Nobel prizewinner into the mainstream of contemporary theatre. McGovern has chalked up a long and distinguished career as an actor on stage and screen, but is particularly celebrated as a Beckett interpreter. His adaptation of Beckett’s novel, Watt, staged at EIF in 2011 was decribed by The Scotsman’s theatre critic as “beyond perfection”.
They converse about Krapp’s Last Tape both with a reverence for the text and its creator and with an easy familiarity. After two weeks’ rehearsal, McGovern had to go and perform in Woyzeck in Galway. “When he comes back we’ll have a week to take it out of the freezer, put it into the microwave,” says Colgan, laughing. Yet, their approach to the text is deadly serious. They are capable of spending many minutes dissecting a single one of Beckett’s immaculately crafted lines. Colgan frequently defers to McGovern as “the real expert”, although he admits to knowing every syllable of the text himself. McGovern says staging Beckett is like performing a Beethoven Symphony: “You’d still be sticking to the same notes, but every orchestra is going to play at different speeds, tonalities, every actor is a different instrument for the material.”
The two met more than 40 years ago at a student drama festival: Colgan was an organiser, McGovern acting in a university production of Endgame. “It was around the time that I was making that discovery [of Beckett],” Colgan says. “I remember telling somebody about this guy who I’d read and thought was really funny, and them telling me, ‘Oh well done, you know he’s won the Nobel Prize?’ Seeing Barry’s Endgame had a profound effect, I thought it was terrific.”
They bonded over a love of theatre and of Beckett, and together went to see Jack MacGowran’s legendary one-man Beckett show, Beginning To End, at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1971. “When I got the job at the Gate in 1983, the first person I wrote to was Barry to ask, would he consider doing a one man show on Beckett,” says Colgan. At his encouragement, McGovern and Gerry Dukes wrote I’ll Go On, a stage version of three Beckett novels – Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable – which has toured the world to critical acclaim. “We didn’t write it,” McGovern clarifies. “We assembled it or adapted it into a show, every word in it was Beckett.” Colgan smothers a smile: “Do you think he’s pedantic in any way?”
They took I’ll Go On to the Fringe in 1986, where they played the Assembly Rooms in an afternoon slot between Rory Bremner and Ivor Cutler, and, memorably, were chased by a policeman while flyposting with a bucket of wallpaper paste. That same year, travelling to Paris to take part in a symposium to mark the writer’s 80th birthday, Colgan and McGovern sought an audience with Beckett at the Hotel PLM on the Left Bank, beginning a friendship which lasted until his death in 1989.
Both refer to him simply as “Sam”. Colgan remembers a gentle manner and black sense of humour, a man who wore his formidable intellect very lightly. “I honestly don’t think I’d have given so much of my life to him if I didn’t like him and admire him.” McGovern says: “It was a great privilege. He was full of integrity, you know. Great memory. I only wish I’d asked him more questions.”
It’s not lost on either of them that the protagonist of Krapp’s Last Tape is their near contemporary. We meet him at the age of 69 (Colgan is 67, McGovern is 68), recording his annual birthday tape on his reel-to-reel, listening to a recording made when he was 39 which in turn references one 12 years before that. It’s a play about ageing, regret, missed opportunities. At 50 minutes long, Colgan says it’s “perfect” for the attention span of today’s theatre audiences.
“I know it throws up different things for the reader or performer or director at different ages,” he says. “I think that’s why you can stay with it, because it changes with you. I’m certainly looking at it from Krapp’s perspective now, that’s for sure. I know every word of it, and yet, I never tire of it, I think it’s one of the great, great works of theatre ever written. There is stuff there that is so subtle that you only get it on the 554th time of hearing it.”
McGovern first performed the play 21 years ago. “I’m finding so much more in it now than I did when I was much younger. If I did in ten or 20 years time it would be the same, I know it would.” Colgan has directed it three times, with David Kelly, Michael Gambon and John Hurt. “I loved David Kelly’s version, Johnny Hurt was extraordinary, and so was working with Michael. I won’t ever say that Barry is better than them, but –” he pauses – “I think that for me, we’re coming into a point, coming into a spearhead. That’s what makes it so enjoyable.”
• Krapp’s Last Tape is at Church Hill Theatre until 27 August at 8pm