Tuesday 20 March 2018

How my first job in theatre was also my last – but it was at Edinburgh Festival

Lisa Dwan will perform Beckett's Not I
Lisa Dwan will perform Beckett's Not I

Colin Murphy

The announcement that Pan Pan Theatre Company is bringing two plays to the Edinburgh International Festival this August took me back. My first job in theatre had me working on a Pan Pan show at the Edinburgh Fringe – 17 years ago. (It was also my last job in theatre.)

It was the summer before my final year in college, and I was working 36-hour shifts for about £2.50 an hour in a dilapidated Georgian mansion that was showing plays from 9am to midnight, after which it turned into a disco.

Eleven friends from college were sharing a three-bed apartment; the boys' room had two of us in the double bed and one on the floor, in rotation. In between shifts, we'd go and see plays, or go drinking, or both.

I was offered last-minute tickets to see a show in the International Festival one evening: Chekhov's Uncle Vanya in Italian, directed by Peter Stein.

I'd been out the previous night(s) and working all day, and was exhausted, but dragged myself along out of a sense of obligation. The tickets were the cheap seats, far up in the gods. But it was spellbinding. I can still remember the image of them extinguishing candles at the end.

Pan Pan brought a show called Tailor's Requiem, a gentle, largely silent piece. I had to take the tickets and then got to sit in and see the show. It was beautiful, elegiac, quite daring; but it was slow. And it was over an hour long, which Edinburgh hates: too many other shows to see. Halfway through, somebody got up to go.

That's normal behaviour in Edinburgh. The theatre there is a marketplace, not an auditorium; if people don't like what you're selling, they get up and walk out. But I was worried the cast would be disturbed, so I slipped off my seat to ease the door open for the punter.

Then somebody else got up to go, and I did the same. And somebody else. There weren't very many in the audience; maybe half-a-dozen left. I felt bad for the company but hoped I had helped minimise the disruption by smoothing their exits.

Afterwards, as I tidied up, one of the company came over. I started to congratulate her on the show. She cut me off. "What the HELL did you think you were doing?" I blanched, and stuttered. "Every time you got up," she said, "it looked like TWO PEOPLE were leaving."

Pan Pan have gone on to become Ireland's leading "experimental" theatre company and one of the country's most prominent representatives on the international festival circuit; I, meanwhile, have not returned to front-of-house work.

Having brought a silent show to Edinburgh 17 years ago, the company has gone to the other extreme: this time, they bring two radio plays, Beckett's All That Fall, which has played in Dublin, and Embers, which premieres in Dublin in August (3-17) at the Sam Beckett Centre (see www.panpantheatre.com).

Barry McGovern joins them as part of a Beckett festival-within-the-festival, with his wonderful one-man adaptation of the novels I'll Go On. And the Gate also brings its productions of Eh Joe and First Love. (See www.eif.co.uk.)

Edinburgh is like Mecca: shockingly overcrowded, messy, dangerous – but every theatre fan should make the pilgrimage at least once.

If you can't make it this year, though, there's intriguing Beckett fare closer to home. At the Hay Festival in Kells on June 28, at 5.30pm, Athlone native Lisa Dwan performs Not I, Beckett's piece for one mouth, after a short, sell-out run at London's Royal Court.

She follows in a short line of eminent actresses: Billie Whitelaw made the role, 40 years ago (you can find it on YouTube), and Neil Jordan has directed Julianne Moore in it (see it on Vimeo). All the audience sees is the actress's mouth, as it spews a 15-minute stream of almost-impossible-to-learn lines.

"Only a few of us know what it is to hang in that darkness, terrified and alone," Dwan wrote in an insightful piece in the Guardian recently. Bringing us into that darkness was Beckett's gift. (See hayfestival.org/kells.)


Irish Independent

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