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“There’s nothing certain in mortality except mortality.” So says a character in the blood-boltered Revenger’s Tragedy, and it might be a motto for the five stage presentations of Samuel Beckett’s work at this year’s Edinburgh Festival.
One’s final impression is of a stage piled – if not with corpses, as in Jacobean tragedy – with the living. For although they are terminal, Beckett’s characters are not over-preoccupied with death. That inevitability they shruggingly accept; they spend their time puzzling about life and how they got here, sifting memory from fantasy, with the odd detail as incongruous as a dream – or reality, whose leaps of logic, Beckett points out, are wider and more flailing than we like to think.
Dublin’s Gate Theatre and Pan Pan Theatre Company have adapted several works that the Irish playwright wrote for radio or television or as novels. Some were classics in their original form. All That Fall, written for the Third Programme in 1957, famously resulted in establishing the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Beckett refused requests from Ingmar Bergman and Laurence Olivier to stage the piece, but his estate has relented, and last year Trevor Nunn’s London production belied the work’s radio origins with live performers, notably Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins.
Pan Pan Theatre’s 2011 production keeps the feel of a radio play. The Festival Hub’s main hall replaced conventional seating with informally arranged rocking chairs, and put a skull motif (more of the skull later) on each cushion. A battery of lights in versatile configurations varied in brilliance from dazzling to pitch black. The recorded voices remind us how wonderfully funny Beckett’s dialogue can be. Take fat Mrs Rooney’s trip to meet her husband at the station (wedged in a car, running over a chicken); with her childlessness, rheumatism and piety, she wants a little love, preferably twice daily.
The dialogue’s combination of demure gentility and bathos, arch formality and prosaic incongruity reveals where Joe Orton got it from. Sound and lighting effects climax with blinding brightness, the train’s grinding roar and the thunderous wind and rain as the dreadful suspicion dawns that Mr Rooney threw a child under the wheels. Andrew Bennett’s Rooney dominates an occasionally overcareful cast.
Eh Joe was Beckett’s first television play. Film director Atom Egoyan’s production packed Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum. Michael Gambon sits onstage as the mute Joe, his face projected on a huge gauze as a recorded female monologue (Penelope Wilton) recounts his emotional cruelty, which led to a girl’s suicide.
Gambon’s reactions are mercilessly observed in close-up: no cheating here. An actor whose eyes moisten to order is a great technician. What a sceptic might applaud as a superb drama-school exercise is transformed by the woman’s voice. Wilton gives a beautifully judged reading that is complementary to Gambon’s silence. Sole complaint: the softening effect on Joe, surely an unregretful bastard.
No soft centre for the Gate’s Barry McGovern one-man show, I’ll Go On (Royal Lyceum). Condensed from the novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, the piece starts with a sardonic, almost stand-up address to the audience including the Beckettian sentiment: “You can’t leave because you’re afraid it might be worse elsewhere.”
Molloy’s quirky reminiscences include the characteristic Beckett quest (here seeking his mother), more roadkill (a dog run over), a parrot, a love whose name is uncertain and a forest (“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita”? Beckett loved Dante). The mood darkens with the bedridden Malone and the Unnamable’s verbal “spew” whose motto might be “I talk therefore I am” – never mind what the sounds mean.
First Love, from another novella, is a more immediately amusing monologue, a deadpan account of emotional ineptitude and sexual maladroitness. Peter Egan perfectly captures the air of gentleman tramp, raffish but literate, having seen better days (and, this being Beckett, worse), wryly funny but haunted by pain.
Pan Pan’s Embers, a radio play staged for the festival, is perhaps the most intriguing work on show. The author was dissatisfied with it but the 1959 play is rich in Beckettisms. Although it is essentially a piece for voices, it was the Irish company’s most visually striking production. The King’s Theatre stage was dominated by a four-metre skull whose eye sockets lit up to reveal the two speakers’ faces, barred by shadows. The crunch of shingle and sound of the sea punctuate the man Henry’s memories (Andrew Bennett again). Henry admits to never actually finishing anything he starts – a Beckett paradox, since his characters are always perfectly prepared for the end: it’s the past that perplexes them. How they began forms the theme of their search: much more interesting than our common end.