Friday 22 November 2019

Sun of Sam shines in Silence and Darkness



THE new company, Mouth on Fire, has an ambitious vision: to stage Beckett's short works anywhere and everywhere it can so that the plays can be brought to new and wider audiences. And it has made a good start with its season at the Focus Theatre in Dublin.

The overall title of the season in which four plays are presented on the same nightly programme is Silence and Darkness and the company has certainly managed to encompass this.

The only light work (if it can be termed such) is the last piece, Play, in which a man and the two women in his life are encased in jars up to the neck, their faces mud-plastered (with the detritus of their ugly lives?) as they describe in brittle and would-be lighthearted terms the progress of their love triangle in which he despairingly told each woman in turn that he loved and could not live without her, breathing a sigh of salvaged relief when things returned to "normal" as a result, only for hysteria to break through when the wife "smells the mistress on him" and the mistress hysterically seems to offer him the peace he craves.

The essence of the play is the brittleness of the scenario and its delivery, set against the appalling isolation of emotional misery; but while the players, Jennifer Laverty, Melissa Nolan and Cathal Quinn do achieve an "overall effect" rather like a good sweep of interior design, it's at the expense of the intricate detail of the text, articulation at times sacrificed to speed.

Arguably, the least successful offering is Catastrophe, always recalled as Beckett's homage to the then imprisoned Czech dissident Vaclav Havel. (Whether Beckett would have maintained sympathy for Havel's overweening self-regard after the fall of the Soviet Union is another question.)

In Catastrophe, a director and his assistant prepare a silent standing figure for an event. Mute and biddable, the figure is still the centrepiece as he is positioned, dressed and undressed, lit and unlit.

It is eerily reminiscent of the old film sequence where Christians are prepared, wrapped, and oiled "like votive candles" preparatory to being set alight (is it early Fellini?). Beckett's purpose is less horribly specific, but his outcome is emphatically more optimistic: the figure remains irredeemably himself, a silent symbol of inner resistance. And the director and his assistant seem to sense it: the final, almost explosive line "Let him have it" signals their ultimate defeat . . . perhaps.

Colm O'Brien plays the figure, with Cathal Quinn as the director and Jennifer Laverty as the assistant in this production. And it's Laverty who rings the wrong note, her briskness essentially unconvincing as she clacks about on her scarlet heels: there is no conviction that this eager busybody has it in her to displace or replace the lackadaisical sense of power in her boss . . . and that must lie at the heart of things: power transfers, and it is up to us to ensure that it transfers wisely.

In Rockaby, an old woman rocks, intermittently whispering for "more" as she and the light fade. The more is her own recorded voice, a tale of standing alone, a figure at a window observing other windows, but despite the peering, seeing nothing: a life stifled in the face of a mother's caring, recalling only the mother in her turn rocking . . . until the rocking ceased, as now the rocking is about to cease again. It is the universal mother-daughter bond, encapsulated in repetition.

Beckett had a determinedly caring mother, the quintessential haut-bourgeois matron. Curse or blessing, the judge is delivering his summation to us, the jury: will we decide guilty or not guilty?

Melissa Nolan is the performer here, and she is close to faultless.

A Piece of Monologue has only been seen once before in Ireland -- and that briefly -- when Conor Lovett, directed by Walter Asmus, played it superbly at CHQ in Dublin during the Beckett Centenary celebrations.

Beckett was not happy with the piece when it was completed in 1979, and perhaps it is not too fanciful to suspect that the reason may have been that for all its minimal detachment, it is intensely self-revelatory. "Birth was the death of him," the Speaker says of himself as he begins, an agonised conversational murmur of protest against life itself. And there is "nothing stirring" as the still figure in a white nightgown and bedsocks lit by a standing globe of light reflects on "thirty thousand nights, two and a half billion seconds" of life with relieved gratitude for "nothing stirring": a life removed from people . . . "I almost said loved ones . . ." a whimsy of attempted interloping that never succeeds. The closest to a stirring is the half-told story of photographs being destroyed, a funeral being watched in the rain . . . "the past swept under the bed with the dust and spiders".

Of all of Beckett's bleak reflections, this is one of those which is intensely hopeless, and it is performed here by Marcus Lamb who, on the evidence, has a fruitful future ahead of him as a Beckett interpreter. And I do not write that lightly.

The four plays are directed by the company artistic director Cathal Quinn, and wonderfully lit by Becky Gardiner.

Sunday Independent

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