Krapp’s Last Tape and All That Fall

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How do you solve a problem like Beckett? Or maybe the question should be: how do you solve a problem like the Beckett Estate?

Since his death in 1989, Beckett’s plays have been vigilantly policed, with new interpreters required to be scrupulous in their following of the playwright’s detailed instructions. One example: in his excellent book Drama: Between Poetry and Performance (2010), W. B. Worthen cites a Performance Licence Rider from February 2000 attached to a licence to perform a number of Beckett’s short plays:

There shall be no additions, omissions, changes in the sex of the character as specified in the text, or alterations of any kind or nature in the manuscript or presentation of the Play as indicated in the acting edition supplied hereunder; without limiting the foregoing; all stage directions indicated therein shall be followed without any such additions, omissions, or alterations. No music, special effects, or other supplements shall be added to the presentation of the Play without prior written consent. (p.208)

That doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. There’s also a certain irony involved in the issuing of a rider like this. It is, in Worthen’s words, “writing meant to constrain the implementation of dramatic writing already said fully to constrain its proper use in the theatre” (p.208). The purpose of the Estate is to protect the authority of Beckett’s texts, yet the necessity of such protection points to a chink in that authority that Beckett’s gatekeepers would otherwise seek to deny. The authority of the theatre text is limited; to borrow a favourite phrase from Michael Goldman, performance always materialises something “in excess” of the words on the page, no matter how detailed those words might be.

But watching some Beckett productions, you’d be forgiven for missing that “excess” of theatricality. Perhaps out of fear of the Estate, perhaps out of reverence for the playwright, too often “new” versions of Beckett’s texts surrender to deadening fidelity. In trying to be slavishly loyal to authorial intention, theatre-makers rob the plays of what has made them enduringly brilliant. Beckett’s world is one of theatrical images that startle and bruise, not raise weary yawns of familiarity. When David Jays explains why he and Waiting for Godot have parted ways, I get it. As he puts it, new interpretations of plays should be about “creating acts of theatre rather than acts of worship”.

I’ll ‘fess up to a bias here. As a researcher, I have a fair amount of intellectual investment in the idea that text is not a prescriptive set of instructions for performance. But I don’t think I’m making a particularly controversial argument. As a director, Beckett himself made changes to his own works in performance, the cutting of the Auditor from Not I being perhaps the best known example. This suggests that he understood – in a way his Estate sometimes seems not to – that each new performance context shifts the relationship with the text. Without that understanding, we might as well banish Beckett’s work to the page, treating it as literature rather than material for performance. Too much reverence does neither playwright nor audience any favours. And it doesn’t exactly help to dispel the persistent idea that Beckett is hard work: impenetrable, fenced off and reserved for the faithful few.

The pretext for banging on about all of this is the Barbican’s International Beckett Season, which just came to a close over the weekend. As well as the Sydney Theatre Company production of Waiting for Godot that finally put an end to Jays’ long, ambivalent relationship with the play, the season offered a reading of the short story Lessness alongside new(ish) renditions of Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby, Rough for Theatre, Act Without Words II, Krapp’s Last Tape and All That Fall.

I caught the latter two on Friday night and was immediately struck by the contrast between them. They are, for a start, two very different pieces of writing, if both recognisably “Beckettian”. In each there’s the silence, the loss, the absences; the pairing of comedy and melancholy; the unrelenting fucking loneliness of being alive sometimes. But while Krapp’s Last Tape takes place in a gloomy, sealed-off space, its protagonist all alone in the darkness, All That Fall is a rich aural tapestry of rural Ireland, full of voices and landmarks.

More than that, though, the productions from Robert Wilson and Pan Pan Theatre respectively have tackled the restrictions of staging Beckett in intriguingly different ways. Wilson’s production layers onto and stretches out Beckett’s structure, the essential shape of which is left (naturally) intact. The opening sequence, before Krapp begins listening to the voice of his younger self, becomes an extended prelude. Face white and hair on end, every feature down to his red socks evoking the clowns of silent cinema, Wilson stares out at the audience while a storm rages outside the box-lined walls of Krapp’s study, the sound almost deafening. It goes on. And on. When finally Krapp (past and present) begins to speak, the words are all carefully in order, but they’ve been given a strange, cartoonish gloss.

Wilson’s production is crisp, precise, consistent. The aesthetic, monochrome apart from that teasing glimpse of red, is part-comic strip, part-silent movie. The light is stark and exposing, in sharp contrast with the surrounding darkness – much like the juxtaposition between clowning comedy and gnawing despair. This is Krapp as deathly, fearful and purged of depths; a pale shell of a man, condemned to the folly of missed opportunities and playing to an audience long gone. Conceptually, it all adds up. But I don’t feel the play. Watching from my comfortable seat, the chill of loss and loneliness never touches me. By painting on top of what’s already there, Wilson’s version becomes all surface.

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Pan Pan Theatre’s All That Fall, on the other hand, adds in order to strip away. Conceived for radio, Beckett famously said that the play was “written to come out of the dark”. Here, the darkness remains, but it’s given intermittent illumination. Rather than staging the play as such, Pan Pan Theatre have created an experience that attunes its audience’s attention. The Pit at the Barbican becomes a listening installation, a landscape of wooden rocking chairs, glowing lights and dangling bulbs. It is astonishingly beautiful, a cocoon of a place that I wish I could escape into every time I listen to radio drama.

Seated in our rocking chairs, we listen to the shifting voices and sounds of All That Fall with the delicate accompaniment of Aedín Cosgrove’s lighting design. Stripped of other visual references, our focus is directed in a way that it rarely is today when we listen to the radio (I’ve even taken to making myself close my eyes when listening to radio plays as a precaution against distractions). Unobtrusively evocative, the brightening and darkening of the lights, forming ever-changing patterns, subtly hints at the play’s narrative and themes, coaxing us into different emotional states as the journey of Maddy Rooney winds its melancholy way to the station and back. Even the gentle rocking movement of the chairs is in tune with the piece, the repetitive rhythm mapping onto the lilting Irish accents and the tides of loss, time and memory. It might no longer be a radio play in the precise way it was originally intended, but Pan Pan Theatre’s version feels in many ways like a purified, distilled experience of All That Fall.

My opening question is the wrong one to be asking, really. Plays aren’t problems to be solved; the very idea of a solution, with all the definitiveness implied, goes against the ever-shifting, ever-transforming nature of theatre texts. So does the iron rule of an Estate for whom honouring a text can only mean strictly obeying it down to the last letter (it’s possible even to ask what “obeying” really means when moving from one medium to another). To borrow once again from Worthen, texts written for performance are “designs for doing”. They beg for enactment, not exhumation.

Or, in short: Love Beckett. Hate the rules.

Top photo: Lucie Jansch.

Happy Days, Young Vic

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“The function of utopia is a critique of what is present.” – Ernst Bloch

I find myself thinking a lot about utopia, optimism, hope and idealism, as well as theatre’s place in that matrix of positivity. Perhaps it’s because, at heart, I think I’m an essentially optimistic person. As an optimist (most of the time) and as a theatre lover, it’s unsurprising that I invest the theatre I see with the possibility of hope, however small. Whether it’s Jill Dolan’s infectiously passionate Utopia in Performance, which greeted me like an embrace after weeks of burying myself in theory which all seemed to disavow theatre’s radical and optimistic potential, or the hopeful striking of a match at the end of Lucy Ellinson’s border ballad, it’s those slivers of optimism which always catch my attention.

Predictably, then, I was struck by that opening quotation from Ernst Bloch. It dragged my mind back to a discussion that Dan Hutton and I had on Exeunt a few months ago, in which we jumped off from Andrew Haydon’s (slightly disingenuous) positing of hope and critique as two sides of a dichotomy, opening into a consideration of hope in the theatre we were seeing at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. One of our shared conclusions was that there can in fact be critique within a hopeful narrative, a point that Bloch’s statement succinctly nails. The same, I think, might be said of discourses steeped in optimism. Just as utopian thought can function as critique, so too perhaps can optimism.

The scorched world of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is clearly not a utopia of any description. Indeed, it would not be much of a stretch to describe it as a dystopia. In Natalie Abrahami’s new production at the Young Vic, the striking prison of earth in which Winnie is trapped is less a mound of sand and more an inhospitable, rapidly eroding rock face, sloping sharply down towards the audience. Within Beckett’s demanded limitations, Vicki Mortimer’s design draws out both the precarious nature of Winnie’s predicament and the yearning, upwards movement that pulls in vain against her cruel, unexplained confinement. Add to this sound designer Tom Gibbons’ chillingly discordant “bell”, slicing Winnie’s time into regimented portions of waking and sleeping – not to mention the encroaching possibility that the sand will soon completely bury her – and it looks like a fairly hopeless situation. So what are we to make of Winnie’s stubborn optimism?

Optimism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, can be defined in two distinct ways. The first, more commonly used definition is hopefulness in a forward-looking sense; the placing of hope in a future outcome. The second definition, however, is the belief that “this world is the best of all possible worlds” – optimism grounded in the here and now. By this definition, as I look around at the grim state of the world we presently live in, I would class as a pessimist. Winnie, however, with her repeated, irrationally cheery “this will have been a happy day”, is an optimist by any definition.

Or is she? Her refrain, significantly, is “this will have been a happy day”, not “this is a happy day”. The happiness is always contingent, always deferred. This statement is often followed, after a pause, by the qualification “so far”, again haunting her contentment with the spectre of future calamities (unsurprisingly, one might argue, given the ever-present threat of suffocation by sand). Time itself is manipulated throughout the play, as in much of Beckett’s work, further complicating matters. Winnie seems, at certain points, to have destroyed the notion of change and the passage of time as a sort of coping mechanism. She insists, illogically, that “nothing has occurred”; even when her umbrella bursts into flame, she calmly observes that it will be back in its old place by tomorrow. Yet there is a definite routine to the way she lives out her days, and a habitual gesturing to both past and future. Her experience of time is less a stretched out, purgatorial present as it is a fluid, mutable marker of existence, and thus her brittle optimism cannot find a firm foundation in any tense.

Juliet Stevenson’s remarkable performance in the Young Vic’s production highlights every last nuance of Winnie’s complex, ambivalent relationship with optimism. Her first expression is an almost grotesque grimace of joy, her face stretching to form a strained mask. There is, proceeding from this moment, a certain deliberateness to Stevenson’s movements, at times becoming an almost mechanical precision. Held static, the thwarted physicality of the rest of her body is channelled through her arms, which she holds like those of a dancer. Each calculated flick of a finger seems invested with some unspoken emotion.

There is something similarly deliberate about Stevenson’s speech – appropriately, for a woman whose existence balances hazardously on words. There is always an effortful edge to her insistent pronouncement of the word “wonderful”, while another of her stock phrases, “the old style”, veers in delivery from cheery to wistful to mournful, eventually becoming stained with desperation. One of Stevenson’s great skills is her ability to load words with heavy yet never overstated meaning; “wife”, rolling laboriously from her lips, is invested with multiple accusations, sighs and hopes. At other times, by contrast, there is an ironic relish to her sentences and a wry ring to her laugh. Out of the bleak, Beckettian gloom, Stevenson’s humour glints brightly.

The overwhelming impression created by Stevenson’s performance is of a woman assaulted by feeling yet grimly determined to remain in control. Her delicate, virtuosic hopping from emotion to emotion is always wrenched back to a dogged cheerfulness, as she fixes her smile with the same care that she fixes her hat. Even her crying is contained, her hands pressing tears back into her eyes. Winnie’s optimism, at least in this production, is not blind or ignorant, nor is it the babbling of a woman who has lost her mind. Optimism emerges as a choice, but it is an unstable one. It has to be worked at.

The more I think about it, the more Winnie’s optimism (if indeed optimism the right word) feels like an apt comment on the situation we find ourselves caught in, particularly at this present moment. Returning to those two definitions, the optimism that many of us feel right now is firmly future tense. We believe, or at least we hope, that things will one day be better; therein lies the critique, as for the situation to improve it must first be flawed in some way. Yet to get by from day to day we, like Winnie, must find some optimism in the present. The system thereby bends us towards the second definition of optimism and the acceptance that ours is “the best of all possible worlds”. Unable to fully resign ourselves to this, perhaps we also hover somewhere between the two, determinedly injecting our lives with cheer and deferring, along with conflicted Winnie, our own happy days.

For another consideration of optimism in Happy Days, see Dan Hutton’s essay

Photo: Johan Persson.

Hard Work? Not I

The following owes a huge debt to Stewart Pringle, who got me turning a lot of this around in my head after a fascinating conversation in the Royal Court bar. It’s also influenced by some of my dim memories of the thinking in Nick Ridout’s fantastic book Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems and the tiny bit I’ve so far read of Passionate Amateurs, which will no doubt add more thoughts to the mix …

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If there’s one thing we all know about Beckett, it’s that it’s hard. Hard for its would-be scholars (as I quickly learned at university), hard for actors, hard for directors held to the strictures of the dead playwright and his famously inflexible estate. We as audience members are encouraged to look upon Beckett’s work as difficult, serious art, while for performers it is a daunting but defining challenge. Apparently, for all involved, it’s hard work.

This is certainly the impression that has been generated by the marketing and media coverage heralding the Royal Court’s latest Beckett offering, a trilogy of short plays headlined by breakneck monologue Not I. In a piece for the Guardian, performer Lisa Dwan insists “There is not a single aspect of Not I that isn’t difficult”; a short behind-the-scenes feature on BBC News (see below) is almost exclusively focused on the physically strenuous nature of the performance; headlines have all zoomed in on Dwan’s record time (an admittedly remarkable sub-nine minute verbal sprint); and even the show’s poster frames the performance as an ordeal, with Dwan’s eyes seeming to appeal to us from above the black make-up surrounding that all-important mouth.

And yes, the experience of becoming Mouth – the body part that must appear suspended in darkness above the stage for the short length of Not I – sounds fairly horrific. As Dwan describes for both the Guardian and the BBC, the performance requires her to be strapped into a contraption mounted on a high platform, with her eyes and ears covered for the duration. Then there’s the text itself, which loops, jumps and scratches like a record, its frenzied repetitions and rapid stream-of-consciousness construction offering no footholds for the memory. Pair that with the demanded speed and Beckett’s strict instructions for its delivery, and Not I reads like a nigh on impossible feat; it’s not surprising to learn that Billie Whitelaw originally described it as “unplayable”. The role of Mouth might sometimes be described as “the female Hamlet”, but no one is listening to “to be or not to be” with a stopwatch in hand.

All of this emphasis on the “how” of Not I is both striking and slightly paradoxical. Theatre tends to be notable for the erasure of its own work; we are invited to partake in illusions, to forget the labour that has produced what we witness on stage. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but more often than not we view theatre as a place of leisure rather than one of work. It’s strange, then, that the work of producing Not I is what has dominated the discourse around it. And not just the strain of the labour involved, but the mechanics of the illusion – pulling back the magician’s veil to reveal how it’s all done.

In some ways, arguably, this unveiling is appropriate. In his review of Not I, Stewart Pringle suggests that “Dwan’s achievement in delivering such a diamond-dense performance is to shave away a little more of the actor, of the polluting falsity of the theatre”. Beckett’s classic note was “don’t act”, demonstrating his desire to get at something beyond the art (or artifice) of performance. At the same time, however, it seems to me that what Beckett was digging towards in his rejection of the usual flourishes of theatre was a visceral rawness that nonetheless depends upon a very theatrical device. The precision with which the disembodied mouth is imagined underlines its importance as a stage image – one that is bold, uncanny and oddly hypnotic. But it’s slightly less hypnotic when you’re thinking about the make-up Dwan is wearing or imagining the straps holding her hidden body in place.

This is noted by Matt Trueman in his brilliant interrogation of why he failed to “get” Not I. He remembers being distracted throughout the performance by just the kind of mechanics discussed above, noticing occasional flashes of exposed cheek that destroyed the illusion of the disembodied mouth. I didn’t experience that same distraction myself (I might as well admit at this point, at the risk of echoing the rhapsodies of others, that the whole thing exerted an almost hallucinatory power over me), but there was, on some level of my brain that wasn’t preoccupied with the relentless shower of words and the unsettling sense that the tiny, glimmering mouth was swaying in the dark, a dim, unhelpful awareness of the sheer technical achievement of the piece. I would consider this awareness of the show’s construction as an intended effect of Walter Asmus’ production, but every other meticulously calculated element of its staging – in particular the deep, inky blackness that envelopes the audience, focusing our attention exclusively on the hovering mouth – seems intent on immersing spectators in the experience, not setting them at one remove.

I wonder, then, what the obsession with “hard work” in relation to this production might say about popular perceptions of theatre as an art form, about the idea of work in our society, and specifically about the attitude to labour within theatre. Without even getting into the economic intricacies of paying artists, which are currently the subject of much vital discussion, I would suggest that there is a tension around theatre and work that is not easily dissolvable. Going to the theatre is an activity typically associated with leisure time – something to do after work, or at the weekend. As such, audiences don’t tend to like being reminded that this is a workplace too, and the majority of the time theatre obligingly covers up the work that goes into making it. Alongside this, however, is a popular suspicion that making theatre is simply too much fun to count as proper work, met with artists’ ever more desperate protests that they do work hard – honest.

It was a small revelation to read Alex Swift‘s words, in response to the whole artists and money debate, that “work is not a moral good”. He is, of course, right, but we all (myself most definitely included) act as though it is. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the notion of hard work, when uncoupled from monetary value and profit-driven ideas of productivity, is actually a bad thing in itself, but that’s another discussion. The reason I wanted to bring Swift’s comments in here was to highlight something simple but often ignored about how our society is built on a generally unquestioned assumption that hard work equals good work. This assumption is applied to theatre too, but with a tricky double bind: you have to work hard (not too much fun allowed), but you can’t possibly let us know that you’re working hard, because that would just be embarrassing for everyone.

So how does this loop back around to Beckett and the popular take on Not I? This is just an idea – and a rather uninterrogated one at that – but I wonder if it comes back to that distinction between art and entertainment that Andrew Haydon recently discussed. He argued that in this country at the moment we’re “pretty much taught to hate, fear and mistrust art”, while funded theatre is required to succeed as entertainment in order to vindicate the public money that has gone into making it. Looked at from this angle, Not I (and much of Beckett’s work in general) falls into an odd place. It’s not really entertainment, certainly not in the way that War Horse or One Man, Two Guvnors are entertainment, but it’s revered rather than hated as art – though it might well still be feared.

As well as and connected to Beckett’s position in the canon, I want to tentatively suggest that it is precisely the “hard work” of Not I that makes it acceptable as a piece of art. There is, to echo Swift, a sense of “moral good” in the effort that this piece is supposed to require from audiences, who attend in an attitude of self-improvement (one that is, as an aside, problematically tied up with class; Beckett productions are, as Trueman points out, something of a “bourgeois experience”). The punishing labour demanded of the performer, meanwhile, is also something to be admired, something that cannot be mistaken – God forbid – for having fun. Not I soars above the fraught battleground between art and entertainment because it can be seen as a serious, hardworking endeavour for all involved.

For me, though, the experience of watching Not I was far from hard work. Hard, in a sense, maybe, but not in a way that I connect with the slog of work (though of course that depends on the kind of work we’re talking about). Blinking up at the miniscule mouth – you somehow expect it to be bigger, despite knowing that would be impossible – the rest of the world seems to melt away into the darkness. And time dances, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but never the steady tick, tick, tick of the working day. If anything, the astonishing speed is one of the least interesting things about the production, or at least it is its effects that matter, rather than the record-breaking time it achieves (here I’m reminded of Gatz, which was also framed as “hard work”, and in which the much-discussed length was again less interesting than everything else it was doing).

There are plenty more fascinating and important things to be said about theatre and work, and theatre as a place to contemplate work (see Nick Ridout’s books), but I don’t think that viewing certain productions as something audiences need to work at* is particularly helpful or illuminating – on the contrary, it can be both elitist and alienating, not to mention damaging the case for art by restricting it to work that ticks a certain box marked “difficult”. If we really want to rescue art, I’m not sure an appeal to hard work is the answer.

*Just a note: when I mention shows that audiences need to “work at”, I don’t think I’m talking about the same thing as theatre that makes audiences think – that kind of theatre is often very enjoyable to watch at the same time as it is intellectually stimulating, and feels nothing like hard work. In any case, it’s more a distinction between the ways in which work is discussed than a comment on the work itself.