Apathia, Athambia, Aphasia
"Five short plays by Samuel Beckett," said the flyer. A big Beckett fan, I immediately cleared two nights in my diary so I could watch the show twice. Of the five plays, I was particularly looking forward to Phillip Zarrilli's performance in Act Without Words I, a mime piece I have never managed to see (obviously, reading it is a very poor substitute). But for some reason this wasn't to be: Zarrilli didn't perform on the night and the programme was reduced to four plays. I wonder if I should ask for a fifth of my money back on the night I didn't get a comp ticket...
The four remaining plays were Not I, performed by American Patricia Boyette, Play and Footfalls performed by the graduating students of the Theatre Training and Research Programme, and Rockaby, initially slated to be performed by Boyette but subsequently ceded to one of the graduands. Boyette did directing duties throughout.
Apparently Patricia Boyette has won a Southern Californian best actress award for her Beckett work, and indeed her performance in Not I was deserving of acclaim (****). But unfortunately for her, I had come to the theatre shortly after listening to the Naxos Audiobooks recording of Not I by Juliet Stevenson, and any performance, no matter how assured, would suffer in comparison to Stevenson's perfect, perfect reading.
The play is essentially plotless, like most of Beckett's work, but it is powerful nonetheless. On a dark stage there is a single spot on a disembodied Mouth hanging about eight feet off the ground. Downstage right, a faintly lit, shrouded figure stands, unmoving. The Mouth begins to talk unhaltingly and at great speed, seemingly recounting memories from its life in a disjointed manner. It is frequently interrupted by an unheard voice which quibbles and seeks clarifications. The Mouth becomes more agitated until the unheard voice provokes it by implying that the memories the Mouth is recounting are its own. The Mouth vehemently denies this ("no! . . she! . .") and stops momentarily while the shrouded figure makes a gesture of helpless compassion. Then the voice continues; the sequence repeats.
What Stevenson understood and crystallised in her audiobook performance was that the Mouth in Not I disgorges its babble of words as a shield against the futility of existence and as a screen against the recognition of self-identity. These two facets have different implications for performance.
The first facet implies that the stream of words is a protective charm - a spell to protect against the absence of meaning in our fallen world. Like a spell, then, its power lies more in its rhythm and music than in its sense. Stevenson endowed each clichéd phrase that makes up the monologue with its own distinctive metre and cadence. And in putting these phrases together, it was almost as if she had used sound editing software to cut up a complete song and had then pasted the constituent parts back together awkwardly, repetitively and in the wrong order. Her speech, then, had the incantatory music of a magical charm against evil, but this was a desperate, jarring, cobbled-together charm - a spell where the shaman knew the magic would end the moment she stopped speaking, and where she also knew deep down (though she refused to admit it) that the magic wasn't working anyway.
Boyette's version had slightly less pronounced rhythms than Stevenson's and very little of its melody; it was a harder, flatter performance, with magic replaced by mechanics. At first, this made it seem more desperate than Stevenson's, because it was more driven and more focused, but soon I realised that Boyette's words were not a shield to hold back the futility of existence; they were a harsh commentary of futility's inexorable advance. In Boyette's universe, the hunger for meaning that animates our humanity had long been extinguished, and all that remained was a cold intelligence mechanically cataloguing the absence of meaning - an intelligence made cruel by the austerity of its calculations.
The second facet implies that the torrent of words the Mouth pours out is a distraction: its purpose is to disguise from the speaker the unbearable truth that the woman whose life story she is recounting is herself and that consequently her existence is purposeless and trivial, and her identity is evanescent. Stevenson transmitted this through the subtlest calibrations of her pitch and volume. I have already noted that her speech was like a song and, crucially, it was a song sung slightly too loudly and off-key; a song sung alone in the dark with tremulous bravado; a song sung to prove (against all the evidence) that she was real, and not the unreal thing that she described.
Boyette's denial of her self-identity was a machine's denial of the ghost in its shell.
Boyette's shortcoming, then, was that her performance failed to communicate that, as the Mouth speaks, it is engaged in a desperate battle to ward off the futility of the universe and the evanescence of personal identity. It is not that this battle was absent from Boyette's universe; it is rather that, in her universe, the battle had long been lost. Where Stevenson gives us the plane going down, Boyette gives us the black box recording of its crash. And this is not quite what Beckett's monologue requires, because the structure of Not I hangs on the increasing vehemence of the Mouth's denials of self ("no! . . she! . ."), and Boyette's performance could not account for this vehemence.
If you discount this one failing, however, Boyette's version was powerful, consistent and expertly performed in its own right; and it added an echoing (if unprescribed) chill to Beckett's monologue. I am extremely glad to have seen it.
"Seen" is the operative word here because, of course, Stevenson's audiobook reading comes without visuals. Even though only Boyette's mouth was visible, hanging in space, she deserves much credit for her physical performance. She moved her mouth with uncommon precision, transforming her lips and tongue into fleshy pistons and biting down on each syllable with the force of a steel trap. This mandibular display perfectly complemented her harsh, flat voice in creating a vision of humanity become inhuman, unhoping and cold.
Not I was by far the most successful of the evening's short plays. The only other one that even came close to success was Play, in which we see a man, his wife and his mistress contained within large urns so that only their heads are visible. In the half-light, the heads are silent and still until a bright spotlight hits one of them and it vomits forth words in a continuous torrent, recounting its version of the affair. Mid-sentence, and sometimes even mid-word, the light moves to another head, which gets its chance to vomit forth its version of events as the other two remain silent. The light keeps moving, arbitrarily, until we have a vague sense, not that we know the whole story, but that we know all we are going to know and that the heads are repeating themselves. At this point, they actually do repeat themselves: the entire sequence happens again, exactly the same as it happened the first time.
Play is wonderful theatre. In a single, stark-but-rich image, it presents to us the human need to be understood and the unattainability of understanding. It shows us the insufficiency of self-justification and the impossibility of gaining justification from others. It shows how our relationships isolate us. It shows us we are trapped within ourselves.
And I suppose this particular production of Play (**1/2) transmitted most of the above clearly enough - but only because the script is so strong that any properly paced attempt at it will do that. What this production failed to do was convince me that any of the above matters.
Language is all that the characters of Play have to protect them from the scrutinising glare of the light that shines on them and seeks out their insecurities. It is also their only way of reaching out into the light in the blind hope of finding someone who will hear, understand and validate them. Because language is of such singular importance to the characters, they must be adept with it: and indeed, Beckett's lines show characters who are aware of the potential of language to conceal, to displace, to play for sympathy - all with the subtlety and assuredness that only the most eloquent of native speakers possess.
Adding a further layer of difficulty, the opening stage directions dictate: "Voices toneless except where an expression is indicated." This is because the characters have presumably been repeating their set speeches over and over for years and the words have become stale and the expressions mechanical. One might think, then, that a flat, distanced reading of the lines (such as a non-native speaker could easily deliver) would suffice, but it will not. In fact, the actors must convince us through their delivery that the words were once fresh and the expressions once animated and that only the long, deadening passage of time has caused each to diminish. This requires remarkable control of pitch, stress and tone.
And finally, the opening stage directions also call for "rapid tempo throughout". This rather understates the breakneck speed at which Play should be performed (and at which it was performed in this production). So the actors have to do all of the above unnaturally quickly.
Sadly, only one of the actors was up to this admittedly difficult task. Sankar Venkateswaran's delivery was rolling and melodic, but he admitted just enough discords and repeated rhythms to suggest that he was sinking into a rut. Perhaps he was still slightly fresher than he should have been, but he was certainly in control of the language.
On the other hand, Sia Ee Mien, playing the mistress, seemed uncomfortable, as if she was concentrating too hard, which is not helpful when the characters are becoming automata. And Xu Jia Li, playing the wife, simply did not have the command of English required to pull off the role. Her word stress and pronunciation were erratic and she seemed, in places, not to understand what she was saying. It was an over-optimistic decision to cast her. (This is not to say, of course, that she couldn't manage the role if it were translated into her native language/dialect.)
The other two of the evening's plays, Footfalls (**) and Rockaby (*) were less successful, largely because their pace had been horribly misjudged.
I suppose it doesn't help that Footfalls is among the weakest of Beckett's plays. It begins promisingly, rife with dramatic tension: a woman, May, has given up her whole life to care for her ailing mother (a voiceover) and has sacrificed so much of herself that she needs to hear the sound her footsteps make on the carpet as she paces to and fro in order to convince herself that she exists. But then the play becomes opaque (and bear in mind that Beckett is never exactly transparent) and turns into something akin to a sentimental ghost story with leaden words and sterile pauses that make it sound like a parody of Beckett.
A repeated phrase from the script is "revolving it all". It should be clear from the beginning that May is locked in a pattern of obsessive/compulsive behaviour, and that her constant pacing and wheeling, pacing and wheeling is an expression of that behaviour and is also a metaphor for the subtler, more damaging revolving that is taking place in her mind. Once this link is established, May can and should slow her pacing until the revolving becomes a painful grinding of the gears and then slow it still more until she finally fades away completely. But this production started so slow that it was hard to see the connection between May's lumpish, over-choreographed steps and any kind of circular motion or pattern at all.
And although there are indeed pauses during the play, the timing of the pauses needs to imply that they are either delays while the right gears click into place or mere temporary breaks within the "revolving it all", not that they are complete cessations of the revolving. In most of the pauses in this production, I could feel my beard growing.
This punishing slowness from the start left Footfalls with nowhere to go. We should have seen a painful, gradual diminishment and negation of life; instead we saw a semi-reanimate corpse lurching back to the grave.
Another major problem came from the sound. One might imagine that the sound of footsteps would be vital to Footfalls, but director Boyette's decision to leave the footsteps inaudible was valid and arguably more effective than letting us hear them (it makes May's need for the sound even more pathetic). But the absence of sound from the stage meant that even the smallest sound from the auditorium was loudly audible. Normally this wouldn't matter so much: the oppressive atmosphere of the play is enough to make the audience suppress their coughs and sneezes till the interval. But the Esplanade Theatre Studio has a very noisy auditorium. There was a constant squeaking noise, like an unoiled rodent, coming from the lighting grid, and every now and then there would be a loud gonging noise as someone accidentally kicked the sonorous metal plates underneath the seats. Who would design a theatre with sonorous metal plates underneath the seats? Madness, and very distracting.
However, it is only fair to note that Felix Hung brought a remarkable focus to the role of May and that her blank, desperate stare into the auditorium was chilling.
Rockaby, which has similar rhythmic requirements to Footfalls, was even more noxiously stagnant. I got really angry watching Rockaby (in which an old woman sits on a self-moving rocking chair and disappears into its rhythm) because it made Beckett seem boring and, although I admit he is an acquired taste, Beckett is not boring: he is a fascinating dissector of boredom, entropy and negation.
In her book, Directing Beckett, Lois Oppenheim transcribes the rehearsal tapes from the 1981 State University of New York production of Rockaby, which marked the first collaboration between celebrated Beckett interpreters, director Alan Schneider and actor Billie Whitelaw. It is a shame that the director and actor of this production either didn't read the book or didn't follow Schneider's advice, because he gets right to the heart of Rockaby. Allow me to quote him.
Instead of a lullaby, Boyette and actor Amelia Tan gave us a dirge from the funeral of an unpopular woman.
This production was grey, forced, monophonic.
This production sounded rehearsed and painfully deliberate. Each word followed the next with mechanical inevitability. The play had no more meaning than the ticking of a clock.
It may seem unfair to hold one production to the standards of another. Why shouldn't directors have the scope to bring new interpretations to a piece? Well, of course, they should. But Beckett was an obsessively precise architect of his plays and there are simply fewer "correct" ways to perform his works than those of almost any other playwright. However, Boyette brought to Not I a greyer palette than the text suggests but still managed to paint beautifully. On the other hand, Play was a flawed attempt at playing Beckett straight. And Footfalls and Rockaby were careless misreadings that drained the plays of their meaning and power.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /