For a writer so focused on the unadorned human condition, Samuel Beckett made great use of technology, not least in his television work, which exploited the medium’s potential to full effect. Think of Eh Joe, televised by the BBC in 1966, in which we see a man alone in his room, listening to the imagined voice of a former lover as the camera remorselessly zooms in on his stricken face.
How can you put a work like that on stage, especially given the strict conditions under which Beckett’s estate grants performance rights? The Canadian director Atom Egoyan, best known for his screen work, has found a solution in this production, a transfer from the Gate Theatre in Dublin. The stage set consists of Joe’s room where he sits in solitude on the edge of his bed. When the taped voiceover begins, a close-up of his face, growing little by little until it is more than seven feet tall, is projected on to a gauze screen in front of the set. It is oddly like watching a stadium rock show: a smaller figure on the physical stage, simultaneously blown up to immense proportions on a screen.
Indeed, the ageing Jagger’s face would work well in Eh Joe. But the face we see here, responding to Penelope Wilton’s coldly accusatory voice, is that of Michael Gambon. The human-sized Gambon on the stage is immobile to the naked eye; but the crags and folds of that face in close-up are never at rest. The eyes rove about as if trying to avoid an interrogator’s gaze; the lips quiver in an infinitely more forlorn version of what Clive James once dubbed “the Dallas twitch”; once or twice a hand jerks up to his face as if he had just been struck. The taped words do fall like blows: the reluctant recollections of Joe’s past, both with the narrator who escaped his clutches and with another old lover who killed herself. By the end Gambon’s face has almost crumpled in on itself. The presentation lasts 25 minutes, yet you wonder how he can manage two performances each night. ★★★★☆
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