Friday, November 03, 2017

Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure - a deadly quartet of short plays (The MAC until 12 November)

Four of Beckett’s more obscure short plays have been brought together on stage by Boston director Bob Scanlan are being performed in The MAC until 12 November under the title Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure.

The first in the quartet of plays is Not I. It’s a rapid-fire monologue expertly delivered by Amanda Gann who sits in front of a camera operated by ‘the Auditor’, a figure wearing a black gown cloak and disguised by a hood. Beckett wanted the sole focus of this stream of words to be on the actor’s crimson lips, so while visible behind a gauze curtain, the audience watch a projection of her mouth and jaw.

Although the magnified lips are magnificently lip-sticked and the teeth are pearly-white, their movement is slightly out of sync with the sound, and removing this digital delay (or delaying the sound without distracting the actor) would remove a distraction for the audience.

Fast and furious the words pour out incessantly, giving a jumbled sense of a woman who has led a distressed life. Amanda Gann displays an expert level of concentration to deliver the repetitive and somewhat rambling lines which have little structure to help the actor. Even more impressive is her seamless switch at the end of the monologue to repeat the whole thing in French, at the same pace and with the same hypnotising fluidity.

A video recording of Not I would not look out of place in one of the MAC’s galleries.

The second of Beckett’s “dramaticules” also features an unusual staging. In Footfalls, May (played by Sarah Newhouse) paces back and forth along a bench that is lit from beneath. She takes nine steps, stops and turns. She hears the voice of her dying mother in her head, spoken from the side of the stage by Carmel O’Reilly. There’s an element of conversation in the short four act piece, but the sentiment of death is stronger than any actual plot.

Next up is Rockaby with Carmel O’Reilly sitting still in a chair which is gently rocked from behind by the hooded figure. Her voice is heard. Like the previous plays, the sense of what she is saying is stronger than the story being told. A camera trained on her face shows that she only intermittently speaks along with the pre-recorded voice, saying “More” ever more feebly each times she kick starts another cycle of words.

The final piece of the evening, Come and Go, sees all three actors (and their hooded friend) return to sit on a bench at the front of the stage. Flo, Vi and Ru engage in a minimalist ritualistic conversation in which they reconnect like old friends, take it in turns to discuss each other, holds hands and exit.

Just 121 words long, it’s like an eyebrow that has had every extraneous hair plucked from it to leave the just the outline of what might have been.

There’s no doubt that the staging and choreography of Beckett Women is superb. The attention to detail, the ringing of bells (following Beckett’s instruction) and space to breath across the four performances creates an almost spiritual experience. The sideways lighting creates some beautiful shadows on the nearly colourless stage.

The controlled and measured performances are deliberately and skilfully emotionally constrained, unwavering in pace, pitch or tone. However that along with the absence of much movement makes Footfalls and Rockaby rather monotonous.

One student of Beckett who attended last night’s performance described the four short plays as “niche”. For me, they were so niche that they were closer to incomprehensible and deadly. Of course, that’s probably the effect that Beckett desired – though he didn’t write them as a quartet, that’s the magic of Bob Scanlan who knew the playwright – but it’s a ‘rare’ theatrical experience to witness their performance on stage, and did little to showcase Beckett’s talent in an accessible manner that would encourage me to explore his wider body of work.

My overall impression is that Beckett Women is a triumph of form, style, skill, staging and performance over content and comprehension. The end-of-life theme and eerie hooded man (played by Chris Robinson) suited the season of Halloween, but the rather impenetrable script and subject matter left me cold and confused (in a bad way).

Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure delivers an evening of high art by The Poet’s Theatre that succeeds in connecting Belfast and Boston together, but fails to entertain its audience. The upside of the depressed production is that everyone has something to say about it as they leave the theatre space and mill around in the MAC’s public areas before heading home. It is definitely a conversation starter.

The production continues in The MAC until 12 November. A post-show talk follows the performance on 9 November.

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